Lois G. Lerner, the woman at the center of the Internal Revenue Service’s tea party targeting scandal, tried to get her agency to conduct an audit involving a sitting U.S. senator, according to emails released Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Ms. Lerner suggested that the IRS look into whether it was wrong for a group to pay for Sen. Chuck Grassley’s wife to attend an event where he was slated to speak. Her suggestion was shot down by another IRS employee who said the arrangement appeared to be legal.
But the email chain, which was turned over to Congress as part of its investigation, raises more questions about Ms. Lerner.
“At every turn, Lerner was using the IRS as a tool for political purposes in defiance of taxpayer rights,” said Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Ms. Lerner’s attorney didn’t return an email seeking comment.
Congressional Democrats dismissed the latest emails, sending around a columnist’s take that played down the revelations as unimportant.
But Mr. Grassley said Ms. Lerner’s apparent fervor was worrisome.
“This kind of thing fuels the deep concerns many people have about political targeting by the IRS and by officials at the highest levels. It’s very troubling that a simple clerical mix-up could get a taxpayer immediately referred for an IRS exam without any due diligence from agency officials,” he said in a statement.
According to the email chain, a group — its name has been redacted — invited Mr. Grassley and Ms. Lerner to appear at an event.
But the group sent Ms. Lerner’s invitation to Mr. Grassley, and his invitation, which included the offer to pay for his wife to attend, ended up with Ms. Lerner.
After getting the corrected invitation, Ms. Lerner began to pursue the audit angle.
“Looked like they were inappropriately offering to pay for his wife. Perhaps we should refer to Exam?” she said in a Dec. 4, 2012, message sent from her BlackBerry device to several IRS colleagues.
One colleague, Matthew Giuliano, replied, “I think the offer to pay for Grassley’s wife is income to Grassley, and not prohibited on its face.”
He also said the IRS would need to wait for Mr. Grassley to accept the offer, attend the event and then determine whether he was issued a 1099 tax form.
“And even without the 1099, it would be Grassley who would need to report the income on his 1040,” Mr. Giuliano said.
It’s not clear whether Ms. Lerner thought the wrongdoing was on the part of Mr. Grassley, his wife, the organization or all three.
But she accepted her colleague’s advice.
“Thanks — Don’t know why I thought it was a [redacted] — maybe answer would be the same,” she wrote.
Mr. Grassley ultimately did not attend the event, his office said.
Ms. Lerner ran the division of the IRS that improperly scrutinized tea party and conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status. The IRS also improperly delayed dozens of applications for years, according to an internal audit by the agency’s inspector general.
She has refused to testify to Congress, citing her right against self-incrimination. But the House ruled that she waived that right during her appearance before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The House has voted to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress.
More recently, the IRS has acknowledged losing a number of Ms. Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011. The agency said the emails fell victim to a computer hard-drive crash. Republicans reacted with skepticism, saying that claim sounds like a convenient excuse to withhold information from Congress.
On Tuesday, the chief of the National Archives said the IRS broke the law by not reporting the hard-drive crash, which destroyed official records required to be kept.
Mr. Grassley had to sign a waiver for the latest emails to be released. The Ways and Means Committee was able to obtain them under its special powers as the chief tax-writing panel in Congress.
The emails don’t identify the organization that issued the invitations to Mr. Grassley and Ms. Lerner, but whatever it was, it appears to have been too controversial for Ms. Lerner’s taste.
“Don’t think I want to be on stage with Grassley on this issue,” she wrote in closing out the email chain.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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