Democrats question costs of IRS targeting probes

Two key Democrats are questioning the costs associated with Republican-led investigations of the Internal Revenue Service’s controversial targeting actions.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP).
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrats on the House Ways and Means and House Oversight committees, respectively, issued a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen last week asking how much taxpayer funding and employee time the IRS had dedicated to the probes.

The congressmen estimated that IRS employees have spent a combined 70,000 hours to produce 500,000 pages of documents for 50 congressional requests. They added that the cost of those efforts would be “well into the millions of dollars.”

“This is occurring during a time when there is a need for adequate resources to better serve taxpayers during the filing season,” the lawmakers said.

Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), responded Monday that the IRS has not yet restored trust with the public and that the ongoing probes serve an important purpose. “The full story of the IRS’s targeting and proposed 501(c)(4) regulations to shut down conservative groups must be made known to the public – which is what this investigation is doing,” she said.

The Levin-Cummings letter is the latest in a wave of recent Democratic actions that cast doubt on past and current examinations of the IRS’ targeting actions. They have suggested Republicans are pushing a false conspiracy theory in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections.

Cummings last week accused House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of meddling in the federal probe that revealed the controversial IRS behavior, which led to apologies by agency officials, a leadership shakeup and follow-up investigations by the Justice Department, the IRS, the IRS’s inspector general and several congressional committees.

Treasury inspector general Russell George released a report in May that said the IRS had applied extra scrutiny to certain advocacy groups based on their policy positions. Critics 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.

In a letter to George last week, Cummings criticized the auditor for holding meetings with Issa’s staff that excluded Democrats. He also suggested that the chairman convinced George to narrow the scope of his review to focus only on the treatment of conservative groups.

Two days later, Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) filed a complaint with a special watchdog council for inspectors general, questioning George’s independence and calling for an investigation.

Issa’s office did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the latest allegations, but spokeswoman Becca Watkins said last week that Cummings was using “personal attacks as a distraction when a picture of inappropriate conduct within the administration emerges.” Watkins added that Cummings has excluded Republicans on the committee from communications with the White House and Obama administration officials, saying the behavior “underscore the hypocrisy of his complaints about an independent government watchdog.”

George stood behind the findings of his review in an interview on Thursday, saying his report “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.”

Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, added that the audit “looked at the entire process of how the IRS was reviewing 501(c)(4)s.”

Republicans have cast doubt of their own on one of the follow-up investigations, criticizing the Justice Department for choosing a Democratic donor who supported the Democratic National Committee and President Obama’s election campaigns to help lead a probe into the targeting actions.

The Justice Department contends that federal law prohibits the agency from taking an employee’s Constitutionally protected campaign contributions into account before issuing assignments, and that its career attorneys can execute their professional duties without bias despite their political donations.

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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