Internal Revenue Service employees charged with scrutinizing tea party groups’ nonprofit status applications showed a marked antipathy to the organizations, with one examiner calling a group “icky” and others saying they were searching for ways to deny the requests, according to a congressional oversight report Tuesday.
The staff report, released by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, the California Republican who is giving up the reins at the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at the end of this year, also found that IRS officials “repeatedly changed their stories” about what went on and who was responsible for targeting the conservative and tea party groups.
The different stories, and roadblocks erected by the tax agency, the White House and congressional Democrats, have made it difficult to figure out exactly what went on in the agency as it was targeting tea party and conservative groups for improper scrutiny and delaying approval of their applications, the investigators said.
“Nearly four years after the committee began probing complaints about disparate treatment towards applicants for tax-exempt status, the committee’s investigation is not closed,” the report concludes after giving a status check on what the investigation has found and what questions are still outstanding.
However, the report says it has been unable to come to a conclusion about whether the White House knew about the targeting beforehand because of conflicting accounts.
Democrats questioned the way the report was written and released, saying it was odd Mr. Issa’s investigators didn’t share the report with them before it was released.
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“It is revealing that the Republicans — yet again — are leaking cherry-picked excerpts of documents to support their preconceived political narrative without allowing committee members to even see their conclusions or vote on them first,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
The release of excerpts of the committee’s interviews has long been a sore point for Democrats, who have tried to get Mr. Issa to release the transcripts in their entirety. Democrats argue that would give the public a more accurate view than the snapshots Mr. Issa releases.
The report marks a parting shot from Mr. Issa, who is term-limited after three congresses as the lead Republican on the committee.
During the past four years, as chairman, he oversaw investigations into the Fast and Furious gunwalking operation, the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack and the IRS targeting.
Along the way, he subpoenaed thousands of documents, sparked the House’s vote to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress and is still engaged in a lawsuit with Mr. Holder to shake loose documents the White House has been trying to shield from disclosure.
In the IRS investigation, his staffers are still battling with the administration to get a look at tens of thousands of emails that they sought a year and a half ago — including some 30,000 that the IRS said were irretrievably lost when key figure Lois G. Lerner’s computer hard drive crashed.
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The report raises questions about how the IRS handled that situation, including revealing an interview with one IRS investigator who discovered that less than 1 percent of her hard drive disk was scratched. That investigator said it was possible the messages could be recovered by sending the hard drive to a special service. But the agency instead had the hard drive recycled.
The report builds on previous ones released by the committee, though this one delves more deeply into IRS employees’ political attitudes, which the investigators say likely colored their approach to the tea party groups’ applications.
The report revealed one email where an IRS employee said a group that had applied for nonprofit status “gives me an icky feeling.” In another instance an employee seemed to begrudge that they would “have to” approve conservative and tea party group applications.
The report recounts an interview investigators had with David Fish, a manager in the division that scrutinizes tax-exempt applications, where he said that an organization associated with the tea party is “probably a loud group.”
“They expected to be given tax-exempt status, even though they’re doing things that they might not be allowed to do,” he said, according to excerpts of the interview included in the report.
Investigators said the IRS must learn to keep that attitude out of its work.
“The IRS and its employees, whose conduct is largely shielded from public scrutiny to protect taxpayers, were not only affected by politics but by a more basic human failure: a discriminatory outlook on the world,” the staff report argues. “The IRS’s inability to keep politics out of objective decisions about interpretation of the tax code damaged its primary function: an apolitical tax collector that Americans can trust to treat them fairly.
New Commissioner John Koskinen, whom President Obama nominated to take over the troubled agency in the midst of the scandal, has said he is trying to cooperate with various congressional probes, but has also asked that they be sped up, saying they are a distraction and that it’s expensive to comply.
The Justice Department launched its own investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing at the IRS, but that probe has made little news.
The IRS has admitted it was too intrusive in its questions, but argues it is no longer targeting or asking improper questions of groups that apply. Still, some groups are awaiting approval for applications submitted four or five years ago.
And last week, one of the groups that waited years for its approval announced it was filing an appeal asking a federal circuit court to ban the agency from targeting in the future. A lower court had thrown that request out, accepting the IRS’s claim that it has halted the practice.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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