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Republicans say IRS e-mails from Lois Lerner show ‘abuse of power’

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House Republicans on Thursday rekindled a months-old controversy by releasing what they described as new evidence that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for political reasons.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, revealed e-mails that he said show “high-level IRS employees in Washington were abusing their power to prevent conservative groups from organizing and carrying out their missions.”

In one message, IRS official Lois Lerner told her staff: “Tea Party matter very dangerous. This could be the vehicle to go to court on the issue of whether [a Supreme Court decision] overturning the ban on corporate spending applies to tax exempt rules … Cincy should probably NOT have these cases.”

An audit from the IRS inspector general found that the agency had singled out tax-exemption applicants for extra scrutiny based on their names and political ideology.

IRS official Lois Lerner waits to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters). IRS official Lois Lerner waits to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters).

Lerner, who is on a leave while Congress investigates her role in the controversial actions, first acknowledged that the agency had targeted Tea Party groups by answering a planted question at a legal conference in May. Administration officials quickly suggested that the actions were not politically motivated and that the issue was confined to the Cincinnati IRS office that handles tax-exemption applications.

But congressional investigations have shown that officials in Washington — including the IRS general counsel’s office and Carter Hull, a legal adviser from that division — helped develop the controversial procedures.

Democratic lawmakers have released evidence, including IRS training materials and interviews with agency employees, that show the IRS targeted groups from both sides of the political spectrum. They contend that the problems identified in the IG report resulted from poor oversight and confusion over how much political activity is acceptable for so-called “social welfare” groups.

In a July 2012 e-mail, Lerner reacted to an NPR article about Democrats fighting to maintain their Senate majority and asking the Federal Election Commission to crack down on outside-money groups that supported Republican causes.

“Perhaps the FEC will save the day,” Lerner said in a one-line reply to a colleague who forwarded the article. It is unclear whether Lerner was referring to preserving the Democratic majority or the potential crackdown on groups not playing by the rules.

Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said none of the revelations from Camp constitute evidence of wrongdoing.

“The e-mails released today do not demonstrate any ‘abuse of power,'” Taylor said. “They only show that Ms. Lerner and her colleagues took steps to carefully process applications that presented complex and sensitive issues, and that her office already had taken steps to address the matters in the [inspector general’s] report.”

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed or e-mail  josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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