The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The claim that Geithner was briefed about IRS targeting five months before the 2012 election

“Right there, we think also the Treasury Secretary himself was in the meeting. We think this idea that you didn’t know until May of this year–you knew in June of 2012. And so don’t give us this phony scandal stuff. Don’t give us this idea, oh, shazam, we didn’t find out until Lois Lerner gave her speech and the inspector general released his audit.”

— Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), on Fox News’ “On the Record,” Sept. 18, 2013

This is an interesting issue for a fact check. A lawmaker goes on national television and citing new documents, strongly suggests that, just months before the presidential election, then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner knew about the IRS’s apparent targeting of Tea Party and other conservative organizations.

“So we know the top people at the IRS were given a heads up when the inspector general was just starting to audit May of 2012,” five months before the election, Jordan told Fox. He also said that he would support a subpoena of Geithner: “Get him in front of the committee and ask him under oath, did you know about this in June. If you did, why didn’t you say something?”

But there’s a problem. Testimony already before Congress shows Inspector General Russell George has already indicated he never met with Geithner. And Geithner’s publicly released schedule shows there was no meeting with George on that day.

“Secretary Geithner did not attend the June 4, 2012, monthly bureau head meeting referenced in the released document,” said Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman.

In other words, the previous testimony still stands: Treasury officials were made aware of the existence of the audit in June 2012, per standard IG procedure, but they were not made aware of the findings until March 2013.

So why would Jordan rush onto TV?

The Facts

Here’s what George said to Congress on May 17:

“I alerted the [IRS] commissioner, then-Commissioner [Douglas] Shulman, on May 30th, 2012. I subsequently alerted the general counsel of the Department of the Treasury on June 4th, and subsequently — and I do not have the exact date — alerted the deputy secretary, Neal Wolin about this matter. And then, upon assumption into the position [as of Feb. 28, 2013], I mentioned it to Secretary [Jack] Lew.”

Note that there is no mention of Geithner. George also described what he called regular monthly meetings of bureau heads:

“With the IRS leadership, we meet monthly with the commissioner or acting commissioner on a standing basis, and then we’ll have communications as necessary. The secretary holds a monthly meeting with bureau heads and in conjunction with those meetings, I meet monthly with the general counsel of the Department of the Treasury and then on an as-needed basis with the deputy secretary, Mr. Wolin.”

On May 22, George testified again and said this about his description of the audit at the meetings:

“We’d obviously had not concluded the audit, so we did not have final determinations at that time. I’m operating from memory here. And it was a while ago and I had no idea this issue would come up in this manner. But the bottom line is I cannot say with certainty that I said to him this was definitively happening. I said, this is the allegation, this is what we’re looking at.”

And here is how Wolin described his meeting with George, also during testimony on May 22:

“At some point in 2012, though I do not recall precisely when, Mr. George notified me, at his initiative, that he had undertaken an audit of the IRS’s review of tax-exempt applications.  He told me only of the fact that he had undertaken such an audit, and he did not provide any findings.  That is my recollection, and that is what Mr. George testified before the House Ways and Means Committee last Friday and before the Senate Finance Committee yesterday.”

So what was new when Jordan went on television? First, there was an email about a “secretary’s meeting” on June 4, 2012.

Treasury email by The Washington Post

But “the secretary’s meeting” turns out to just be monthly bureau heads meeting. And Geithner did not attend that meeting, as his schedule shows, and as Treasury stated in a statement to The Fact Checker.

Second, investigators obtained a briefing paper for George about the investigation, for possible use at the meeting, from that period.

Audit Briefing Paper by The Washington Post

But neither of these documents suggest that top Treasury officials, let alone Geithner, learned any more than the fact that the audit was taking place. As Wolin put it in his testimony:

“Mr. George told me that he was conducting an audit, and I told him to follow the facts wherever they lead.  Our core principle is that we do not interfere in any way – or do anything to create the perception of interference – with the independent review of an inspector general.  When an inspector general tells us he is conducting a review, we step back and leave him to do his work.  That is how the process functions.  That is how the process should function.  And that is how the process functioned here.”

A spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee noted that it is unknown whether Geithner was ever briefed on what his staff learned about the IG investigation.

But Treasury officials have no recollection of discussing it with Geithner during that period. Moreover, GOP investigators have not demonstrated that Treasury officials learned anything more than the fact that there was an audit.

The Pinocchio Test

Jordan appeared on television and suggested he had a smoking gun concerning the former Treasury secretary, with the slight caveat of  “we think.” But testimony and information already received by the committee shows there is much less here than meets the eye, and certainly little that suggests Geithner needs to be subpoenaed.

As the investigation continues, we can certainly update this ruling if more information emerges about a possible briefing for Geithner. But lawmakers should be careful about going on national television and making charges for which they have little evidence. It was known already that George told top Treasury officials —but not Geithner — that an audit had been launched to examine the allegations, but that was it. The documents that Jordan breathlessly described on television have added little to that picture.

We wavered back and forth about whether this was worthy of Two or Three Pinocchios. Jordan’s rush to judgment was unseemly; generally, an unsupported allegation, especially when prior information undermines it, should not be excused. But his comments do not quite rise to the same level as Rep. Mike Rogers’s claim earlier this year that the White House engaged in criminal behavior.

Two Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook