“The inspector general found inappropriate criteria were used to select organizations for further review — he did not refer to it as targeting.”

“Yes, inappropriate criteria were used. I don’t think I used the word target, but I do acknowledge that applications were delayed unnecessarily and for too long.” 

“I have never said there was targeting.”

 — IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, congressional testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, March 26, 2014

What’s in a phrase?

House Republicans who have investigated the IRS’s handling of applications of conservative groups’ seeking tax-exempt status have referred to the practice as “targeting.” So have news organizations, including The Washington Post.

But the Obama administration has preferred a more bureaucratic phrase — that “inappropriate criteria” were used to decide which organizations needed extra scrutiny. That would be words like “tea party.”

This effort at spin control took an odd turn recently when, during a congressional hearing, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen denied that the Treasury inspector general had used the term “targeting.” At another point in the hearing, Koskinen said that he had “never” used the phrase either.

What did the IG say and when did he say it?

The Facts

The May 2013 report by Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) Russell George is titled “Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review.” In the report, he states that, in response to concerns expressed by members of Congress, an investigation was launched:

The overall objective of this audit was to determine whether allegations were founded that the IRS:  1) targeted specific groups applying for tax‑exempt status, 2) delayed processing of targeted groups’ applications, and 3) requested unnecessary information from targeted groups.

What did the inspector general conclude? “The IRS used inappropriate criteria that identified for review Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax‑exempt status based upon their names or policy positions instead of indications of potential political campaign intervention,” the report said.

You can see the IG is engaged in a delicate balancing act here. On the one hand, he uses the terms preferred by members of Congress to describe the investigation. But then he reverts to bland bureaucratic phrasing in his conclusions. He uses this same formula in his written testimony.

But what happened when George actually spoke before Congress about his report?  Here are two examples from his testimony on May 22, 2013:

“The three allegations considered during our review were proven true. The IRS targeted specific groups applying for tax-exempt status. It delayed the processing of these groups’ applications, and requested unnecessary information, as well as subjected these groups to special scrutiny.”
“The inappropriate criteria discussed in this audit were the IRS’s targeting for review Tea Party and other organizations based on their names or policy positions, a practice started in 2012, and which was not fully corrected until May 2012. Actually the practice was started in 2010 and not fully corrected until May of 2012.”

Note that George said the three allegations were “proven true.” The allegations all concerned “targeting.” And then he actually used the word. He even said that the “inappropriate criteria” were defined as the “IRS’s targeting.”

Moreover, Koskinen himself uttered “targeting” before he arrived at the IRS, during his confirmation hearings in December, even though he told Congress in March that he had never used the phrase:

“I think as the president responded and everyone responded to the extent that the facts show that conservative groups or liberal groups or any groups were targeted because of their political positions when they made applications,” he said in response to a question from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “That really is intolerable.”

Was the phrase so toxic that it was wiped from his lexicon once he arrived at the IRS? Perhaps. But an instant report issued by his predecessor, Daniel Werfel, on June 24, 2013, also used the phrase “targeting”. (See Page 9.)

Personnel in the Exempt Organizations (EO) unit applied inappropriate screening criteria to applicants for tax exempt status, creating BOLO listings that resulted in the improper targeting of a number of applicants for additional scrutiny.

We spent several days trying to get an explanation from the IRS and were asked to wait for an answer on Wednesday. As it turned out, Koskinen appeared before the National Press Club that day and took the opportunity to apparently set the record straight by acknowledging that George orally used the phrase “targeting:”

There is no doubt that everybody who has looked at this has said selecting organizations by their name only for special or separate or detailed processing was a mistake, should not have happened, should never happen again in the future. The IRS IG — the TIGTA — in his report, his findings were that inappropriate criteria were used in the selection process, by which he meant the identification by name only. People then have extrapolated from that, and on occasion the inspector general in public has referred to that as targeting. His findings simply said: “inappropriate criteria were used.” Whatever you call it, it’s clear that it was a serious mistake.

The IRS also provided this statement to The Fact Checker:

Commissioner Koskinen was referring to the inspector general’s May report, which does not specifically use the word “targeting” in the actual findings or recommendations contained in the report. Rather, the report’s title uses the term “inappropriate criteria.” The commissioner did not say that the inspector general had never used the word “targeting” at any time.

The Pinocchio Test

We understand the public relations concern about acknowledging that the IRS engaged in targeting of conservative groups. But the cat’s out of the bag, given an official IRS report has used the phrase and both George and Koskinen have used it in public testimony.

The IG’s report was carefully written, but at this point, it is silly and counterproductive for Koskinen to fall back on bureaucratese — or even deny that the phrase “targeting” had been used. While perhaps technically correct in terms of the report, this is a slender reed to hide behind. After all, George publicly said that all three allegations of “targeting” were proven, and that using “inappropriate criteria” was the equivalent of “targeting.” That demonstrates that the term “inappropriate criteria” is simply a euphemism. Accept that means “targeting,” and move on.

Three Pinocchios

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