Ethics investigators publicly accused several Internal Revenue Service employees and offices Wednesday of engaging in pro-Democratic politics on government time, including one agency office in Dallas where employees posting pro-Obama stickers and buttons was “commonplace.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill said it was more evidence that the embattled tax agency is politically biased against conservative groups, even as they moved ahead with action to discipline the IRS and former employee Lois G. Lerner.
One House committee voted to officially accuse Ms. Lerner of criminal behavior, and another prepared to vote Thursday to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about her role in scrutinizing tea party applications for tax-exempt status.
The criminal accusation and the contempt citation, which will require approval by the full House, are requests of the Justice Department, and it’s unclear how Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will handle them.
“The IRS is out of control,” said Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, one of the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee to vote for the criminal accusation against Ms. Lerner.
He said accusations of IRS employees politicking on government time hurt Americans’ faith in the agency. “It’s no surprise that this is coming from the very same agency that targeted Americans based on their political beliefs.”
SEE ALSO: House committee votes to refer Lerner to Justice Dept. for criminal charges
The Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with enforcing violations of the federal Hatch Act that prohibits most government employees from engaging in politics, listed three violations it found in the past few years.
In one case, a worker at the IRS customer help line urged taxpayers “to re-elect President Obama in 2012 by repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of his last name,” the OSC said. The office is seeking “significant disciplinary action” against that employee.
Another case involved a Kentucky employee who criticized Republicans in a conversation with a taxpayer. “They’re going to take women back 40 years,” the IRS employee said in a conversation that was recorded. The employee also said that “if you vote for a Republican, the rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer.”
That employee agreed to a 14-day suspension.
The most widespread case was in the Dallas IRS office, the OSC said, where materials promoting Mr. Obama were “commonplace.”
“Specifically, it was alleged that employees have worn partisan political stickers, buttons, and clothing to work and have displayed partisan political screensavers on their IRS computers. It was alleged that these items expressed support for President Barack Obama,” the OSC said in a letter to the Dallas office urging that all employees be reminded of their legal obligations.
SEE ALSO: Issa: IRS worked with Democrats to attack tea party group True the Vote
The IRS issued a statement saying it couldn’t comment on specifics but vowing it took complaints of politicking seriously.
“The IRS regularly reminds employees of the Hatch Act guidelines,” the agency said.
When suspected violations are reported, the agency said, it follows “proper procedures and protocols.”
The IRS has been under fire since its internal auditor last year revealed that the agency’s tax-exempt division improperly gave special scrutiny to tea party and other conservative groups applying for nonprofit status.
The IRS asked intrusive questions of the groups and improperly withheld approval from dozens of them, according to an inspector general’s report.
Ms. Lerner, who was removed as head of the tax-exempt division after the report became public and who retired from the IRS in September, is a central figure in the congressional investigation.
Republicans say emails obtained so far show Ms. Lerner intended to target conservatives.
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to approve a resolution officially referring Ms. Lerner to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The resolution, which was approved on a party-line 23-14 vote, now goes to the full House for action, presumably next month.
The committee debated the referral in closed session so the discussion was not public.
Afterward, the committee released a 14-page letter containing the referral. It accuses Ms. Lerner of “willful misconduct” by using her position to take action “against only conservative organizations,” lying to the inspector general who conducted the initial investigation, and potentially exposing private taxpayer information by using her personal email account for government business.
In one case, the committee said, Ms. Lerner sought to influence the IRS appeals process.
Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, tried to object to holding the proceedings behind closed doors, but Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, overruled him.
“I don’t understand why you are doing this Mr. Chairman,” Mr. Levin said in a prepared statement he was unable to deliver. “You have hand selected information that you believe proves your case from the about 700,000 documents provided during this investigation. You have given Members 24 hours to look at it. And, you have not provided them the necessary authority to look at any other documents, beyond what is included in the notebooks, so that members could reach a conclusion on their own.”
William W. Taylor III, Ms. Lerner’s attorney, said the vote doesn’t change anything because the Justice Department already is investigating the IRS.
He has acknowledged that Ms. Lerner has spoken with the Justice Department as part of its investigation, though she has refused to talk to Congress, and House Republicans are preparing a contempt of Congress citation against her.
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong,” Mr. Taylor said in his statement Wednesday. “She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption. Those are the facts.”