Two Democrats call for investigation of IRS watchdog who led targeting probe

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Two House Democrats on Thursday called for an investigation of a federal auditor who accused the Internal Revenue Service of gross mismanagement and targeting advocacy groups for extra scrutiny based on their names and policy positions.

Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) on Wednesday filed a complaint with a special watchdog council questioning the independence of Treasury Department inspector general J. Russell George.

The congressmen, both of whom serve as top Democrats on House oversight committees, said George produced a “fundamentally flawed performance audit” that was “incomplete” and “outright misleading.” They also alleged that he held briefings with Republican members of the House Oversight Committee without the knowledge of Democrats on the panel.

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

George on Thursday stood behind the findings of his review but declined to comment about the meeting allegations, which were explained to him in an interview with the Washington Post. He said he may soon issue a formal response to the accusations.

The inspector general’s report, released in May, said the IRS “used inappropriate criteria that identified for review Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status.” Earlier that month, then-IRS official Lois Lerner alluded to the findings when she acknowledged in response to a planted question that the agency had targeted groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names.

George’s audit led to public outrage, six federal probes and a leadership shakeup at the IRS. It also prompted the Treasury Department to draft a new guideline to distinguish what types of political activities disqualify groups from tax-exempt status.

Supporters of the recommended rule change say it would set clearer boundaries and help IRS employees understand which applicants to reject. But many Republicans have opposed the recommendation, saying it could hinder groups from free speech.

MORE: New IRS rules add both clarity and confusion about the role of advocacy groups in politics

The complaint against George follows a letter Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Connolly sent to George suggesting that he had narrowed the scope of his IRS review after agreeing to hold one-party meetings with Republicans staff on the House Oversight Committee, headed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Cummings is ranking member of the panel, while Connolly is the top Democrat on one of its subcommittees.


Cliff Owen/AP – Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), left, and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

The letter asked George to hand over documents from his office relating to defining the limits of the audit. It also asked the inspector general to avoid meetings that would exclude Democrats and provide Democratic staff with the briefings they missed.

Critics of the IRS report say the audit focused too much on an a “be on the lookout” list that targeted groups with conservative names, while ignoring older lists that contained terms associated with progressive themes. Republicans have used the report to attack the Obama administration.

Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, defended the review on Thursday, saying it “looked at the entire process of how the IRS was reviewing 501(c)(4)s,” otherwise known as social welfare groups.

George added: “We noted there were other ‘be on the lookout’ lists that included other types of organizations, but that was not the initial charge of the review and not the focus.”

Connolly and Cartwright sent their complaint on Thursday to three members of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. The recipients were: Joseph Campbell, a top official with the FBI’s criminal investigation division; Beth Colbert, deputy director of management for the White House Office of Management and Budget; and Department of Agriculture Inspector General Phyllis Fong.

The council, known as CIGIE, serves as a watchdog for the inspectors general community. George is a member of the group.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. 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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