IRS chief counsel’s office involved in targeting controversy

The chief counsel’s office for the Internal Revenue Service, headed by a political appointee of President Obama, helped develop the agency’s problematic guidelines for reviewing “tea party” cases, according to a top IRS attorney.

In interviews with congressional investigators, IRS lawyer Carter Hull said his superiors told him that the chief counsel’s office, led by William Wilkins, would need to review some of the first applications the agency screened for additional scrutiny because of potential political activity.

(Susan Walsh/AP)
(Susan Walsh/AP)

Previous accounts from IRS employees had shown that Washington IRS officials were involved in the controversy, but Hull’s comments represent the closest connection to the White House to date. No evidence so far has definitively linked the White House to the agency’s actions.

According to a partial transcript released by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chief counsel’s office also discussed using a template letter to ask questions about the groups’ activities, despite Hull’s warning that such a boilerplate approach would be impractical.

“My reviewer and I both said a template makes absolutely no difference because these organizations, all of them are different,” Hull told investigators. “A template would not work.”

Hull told investigators that he had already requested additional information from the applicants at that point and felt he had enough facts to make a determination about their eligibility, according to the transcripts.

Social welfare groups, known as 501 (c)(4)s, faced delays lasting months and even years as the IRS reviewed their applications during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

IRS inspector general Russell George released a report in May that said the agency had inappropriately targeted groups based on ideology rather than looking for politically neutral signs of campaign activity. He also found that the IRS went too far in its questioning of applicants, asking them for everything from resumes to names of donors or membership lists, which experts say the IRS cannot legally do.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in recent months have offered competing narratives about who was to blame for the IRS’s actions. GOP lawmakers have suggested that Washington IRS officials and even the White House had a hand in the controversy, while Democrats have said the issue started with mid-level employees in the agency’s tax-exemption office in Cincinnati.

While talking about the controversy in May, White House press secretary Jay Carney referred to “the apparent conduct by our IRS officials in Cincinnati” and said “line IRS employees in Cincinnati improperly scrutinized 501 (C)(4) organizations by using words like ‘tea party,’ in quotes, and ‘patriot.’”

Some Republicans, particularly Issa and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have argued that the administration was essentially bullying Obama’s opponents.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight committee, released transcripts of congressional interviews with IRS employees that showed a Cincinnati agent elevated the first tea party case to Washington for guidance. A timeline from the inspector general’s report suggests that event served as the genesis of the targeting initiative.

On Wednesday, Cummings released additional transcripts in which Cincinnati IRS employees, some of them self-described Republicans, say they knew of no political motivation or White House involvement in the process.

IRS documents show that the agency has created “be on the lookout”, or BOLO lists, to screen both progressive and conservative groups for additional scrutiny, but one set of search criteria applied only to right-leaning groups initially.

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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