Lois G. Lerner, the woman at the center of the Internal Revenue Service scandal over special scrutiny of conservative groups, specifically targeted tea party applications and directed that they be held up in 2011 in order to come up with an agency policy, according to several of Ms. Lerner’s emails released by a House committee Thursday.
In one 2011 email, Ms. Lerner specifically calls the tea party applications for tax-exempt status problematic, which seems to counter Democrats’ arguments that tea party groups weren’t targeted.
“Tea Party Matter very dangerous,” Ms. Lerner wrote in the 2011 email, saying that those applications could end up being the “vehicle to go to court” to get more clarity on a 2010 Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance rules.
In another email, from 2012, Ms. Lerner acknowledges that the agency’s handling of the tax-exempt applications had been bungled at the beginning, though she said steps had been taken to correct problems.
“It is what it is,” she wrote in the email, released Thursday by the Ways and Means Committee. “Although the original story isn’t as pretty as we’d like, once we learned [that we were] off track, we have done what we can to change the process, better educate our staff and move the cases. So, we will get dinged, but we took steps before the ‘dinging’ to make things better and we have written procedures.”
That email suggests that agency employees knew they had gone overboard in their scrutiny — despite top IRS officials telling Congress that there was no special scrutiny of conservative groups.
PHOTOS: President Obama's favorite footstool: The famous Resolute desk
In another 2012 email, Ms. Lerner seemed to take sides in a battle between the Federal Election Commission and conservative tax-exempt groups that were engaging in politics, saying “perhaps the FEC will save the day.”
The IRS inspector general this year released a report finding that the agency had singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny and asked intrusive questions about their activities.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, said the emails from Ms. Lerner show a dangerous pattern.
“There is increasing and overwhelming evidence that Lois Lerner and high-level IRS employees in Washington were abusing their power to prevent conservative groups from organizing and carrying out their missions,” he said. “There are still mountains of documents to go through, but it is clear the IRS is out of control and there will be consequences.”
Democrats have argued that liberal groups were also scrutinized, though the latest emails suggest there was an effort to target tea party organizations.
Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said there is still no evidence that the IRS was driven by a political motive to stifle conservative views.
COVERAGE: Tea Party Voices
“Lois Lerner was incompetent in her management of the IRS tax-exempt division and unprofessional in her conduct — reasons why I immediately called for her to be relieved of her duties,” Mr. Levin said.
He said, though, that Republicans are overselling what the investigation uncovered.
“Selective leaking by Republicans does not change the fact that tens of thousands of documents and dozens of interviews with IRS employees have revealed absolutely no evidence of political motivation, no evidence of outside influence and no evidence of White House involvement,” Mr. Levin said.
Ms. Lerner has been removed from her post at the helm of the tax-exempt organizations division, but has not been fired from the IRS.
She asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this year, though committee members argue that she may have waived that right and should be recalled and forced to answer questions.
In a statement, the IRS said it has to abide by personnel rules but could not comment on a specific employee.
“We support a complete review of these documents to fully understand the circumstances that led to these events,” the IRS said, adding that the agency has tried to cooperate with the congressional investigations.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents 41 tea party and conservative organizations from 22 states in a federal lawsuit against the IRS, said the newly released emails are “damning.”
“They clearly contradict the story line put out by the White House and the IRS that this scheme originated with a couple of rogue, low-level employees in a satellite office in Ohio,” Mr. Sekulow said. “Secondly, it clearly shows the political motivation behind the targeting scheme — a motive that Obama administration officials continue to deny.”
Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina, is involved in the lawsuit and has been waiting more than three years for IRS approval of an application for tax-exempt status. She said the situation is “completely unacceptable.”
“No one has been fired, those placed on administrative leave are still getting paid, and one person was ‘reassigned’ to other duties,” Mrs. Belsom said. “While the Democrats have tried to claim conservative/tea party groups were not the only targets, all of the evidence points otherwise. It is extremely disappointing that our own government has harassed and targeted us, and to date, there have been no real consequences.”