— Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), remarks at House Ways and Means Committee hearing on IRS investigation, June 20, 2014
Despite reader requests, we have not delved into questions about the IRS’s explanation for the disappearance of former official Lois Lerner’s e-mails after her hard drive crashed. It is suspicious whenever data crucial to an investigation disappears — and certainly the IRS’s disclosure of this problem has not been timely. But we do not see a way to prove, to our satisfaction, that the hard drive could have been saved or recovered.
Nevertheless, Roskam’s assertion last week caught our attention. It was also highlighted by Chris Wallace of Fox News on June 22, in a question he asked of a Democrat: “Chairman [Dave] Camp, House Ways and Means, asked the IRS about the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. June 13th, just 10 days later, Lerner reports that her hard drive has crashed…. How do you explain this apparent coincidence that it is 10 days after Congress starts asking about the e-mails that Lois Lerner says, oh, the hard drive has crashed?”
But is this really what the letter was about?
We have embedded a copy of the letter below. Here is a link to the news release issued at the time by Camp.
Recall that the issue involving Lois Lerner was the targeting of conservative advocacy groups applying for 501(c)(4) status. But this letter concerned something different — the IRS’s decision to send letters to the donors of such organizations that their contributions might be subject to gift taxes. This issue had first emerged in early May of 2011, when Ofer Lion, a tax adviser, sent a notice to clients about the issue. The New York Times reported on the issue on May 12, suggesting that the IRS effort would target donors to both liberal and conservative groups. Stephanie Kittredge, a spokeswoman for Roskam, and Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for the Ways and Means Committee, defended the reference to the letter on the grounds that it was the first indication that the IRS was targeting conservative groups, though they conceded the letter does not actually mention conservative groups.
“This letter from Chairman Camp to the IRS is one of the first communications from the committee to the IRS that put the agency on notice that Ways and Means investigators were aware that IRS officials were treating conservative individuals and groups differently,” Kittredge said.
“Then-acting Commissioner Steve Miller made the announcement that they were going to audit five donors for gift taxes early May 2011,” Swinehart said. “Also in May 2011, we started hearing from conservative groups that they were concerned that their donors were receiving audits/could be audited. We sent the letter and asked to see the files of the five individuals. The IRS and Miller knew who the five individuals were when the information was requested, and after reviewing the files with our 6103 authority we were able to see that these were conservative donors that were audited.”
The 6103 authority allows Camp to review tax documents and audit files without disclosing it, and Camp had said in his release he would exercise the authority. Within weeks, the IRS canceled the audits. It appears the early news reporting assuming that liberal donors were also being targeted was, in fact, not correct. Swinehart argued that, within the context of the time, the Camp letter is significant because it put the IRS on notice that any targeting of conservative groups would face scrutiny. “That was the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Kittredge maintained Roskam was simply noting that 10 days had passed from when the letter was sent to the crash of the hard drive. But he still takes a large rhetorical leap. The IRS, after all, had disclosed its plans to audit donors three weeks before Camp’s letter was sent. The Treasury inspector general report that led to Lerner’s departure from the IRS says that it was not until June 29 — 26 days after the letter was sent — that Lerner learned about the inappropriate screening terms for applicants for 501(C)(4) status. And yet Lerner intentionally trashed her hard drive after the IRS commissioner received one of many letters from Congress requesting documents?
The Pinocchio Test
The timing may seem suspicious, and perhaps Roskam has every right to jump to conclusions. But in claiming that Camp “sent a letter on this whole issue,” he went too far in describing the contents of the letter. In fact, at least one person, Chris Wallace, was misled into thinking the letter concerned the applicants; there were probably many other listeners as well. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios on this. We can appreciate the argument that this was an important letter, but the causal connection to Lerner’s hard drive appears far too tenuous for Roskam to make such claims, given that the letter does not mention conservative groups.