Was the IRS report ‘flawed in a fundamental way’?

Democrats on Tuesday used new revelations about the IRS targeting initiative to question an inspector general’s report that prompted public outrage, congressional investigations, a Justice Department probe, apologies from IRS officials, and a wave of personnel actions.

The discoveries relate to a BOLO list, or search criteria, the IRS used in 2010 to single out tax-exemption applicants for extra scrutiny. The criteria include terms such as “progressive,” “healthcare legislation,” “medical marijuana,” and “occupied territory advocacy.”

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) - Treasury Inspector General Russell George.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) – Treasury Inspector General Russell George.

A report last month from the Treasury Department’s inspector general determined that the IRS used inappropriate search criteria and went too far with its review tactics. But that audit focused primarily on conservative groups.

A spokesman for Treasury Inspector General Russell George told the Hill newspaper on Tuesday that House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked for auditors to “narrowly focus on tea party organizations.” The spokesman added: “We did not review the use, disposition, purpose or content of the other BOLOs. That was outside the scope of our audit,” according to the Hill.

“The audit served as the basis and impetus for a wide range of congressional investigations, and this new information [about search criteria] shows that the foundation of those investigations is flawed in a fundamental way,” said Rep. Sandy Levin, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee (D-Mich.), in a statement Tuesday.

Last month, Republicans used the inspector general’s report as the basis for intense criticism of the IRS. Issa described the agency’s behavior as “targeting of the president’s political enemies,” while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Washington Post that the IRS behavior was indicative of widespread intimidation by the Obama administration.

Democrats joined in the fury. Levin called on former Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to resign after the audit findings were released.

“My own judgement is, just based on the report from the inspector general, I think there’s reason to believe that Mr. Miller should be released of his responsibilities as well as [IRS official Lois Lerner],” Levin said during an MSNBC interview in May. “There was such total mismanagement.”

George, who was appointed to his position in 2006 by President George W. Bush, testified before Congress last month that his office was unable to determine whether any of the cases reviewed in the audit involved progressive groups. He said the names “in many instances were neutral, in that you couldn’t necessarily attribute it to one particular affiliation or another.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose questioning prompted that response, said in a letter to George on Tuesday that the inspector general’s answers were “at best incomplete, if not misleading.”

Connolly also suggested that George should appear again before the House Oversight Committee to “explain himself,” according to a statement from the congressman’s office.

Republicans have downplayed the recent revelations about search criteria.

A spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), said in an e-mail to reporters on Monday: “It is one thing to flag a group, it is quite another to repeatedly target and abuse conservative groups. Tea Party groups were not just on a BOLO they were (1) sent intrusive and inappropriate questions, (2) had their donors threatened with gift taxes and (3) had their confidential information leaked.”

The Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday about the IRS’s internal review. Camp’s spokeswoman said the panel still welcomes “all groups, regardless of affiliation, that feel they may have been targeted for extra scrutiny to come forward.”

On Monday, Acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel, whom President Obama appointed to lead the agency last month, discussed the results of an internal review relating to the targeting efforts. “There was a wide-ranging set of categories and cases that spanned a broad spectrum,” he said in a conference call.

Werfel added that the screening efforts were inappropriate, but “we have not found evidence of intentional wrongdoing by anyone in the IRS or involvement in these matters by anyone outside the IRS.”

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · June 25, 2013