Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen spent nearly four hours Wednesday being verbally pummeled by the House conservatives who want to impeach him.
But it remains unclear whether the Judiciary Committee inquisition will convince GOP leaders to launch a rare, time-consuming, and resource-intensive impeachment probe so long as evidence of wrongdoing remains scant.
Koskinen stands accused of presiding over the IRS when the agency destroyed computer backups containing thousands of emails sought by Congress in its investigation of political targeting at the agency. No evidence has emerged to show that Koskinen directed or had prior knowledge of the destruction, but conservatives have pushed to hold him accountable by making him the first executive-branch official to be ousted by Congress since 1876.
Koskinen told lawmakers Wednesday that pursuing his impeachment would be inappropriate and counterproductive.
“I accept that it is up to you to judge my overall record, but I believe that impeachment would be improper,” he said in an opening statement. “It would create disincentives for many good people to serve. And it would slow the pace of reform and progress at the IRS.”
But Koskinen was quickly faced with harsh questioning from the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, many of whom cited a double standard for IRS officials and for regular taxpayers who are accused of wrongdoing.
“You know how to dish it out, but you don’t know how to take it,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which issued a subpoena for IRS documents in 2013. “When we issue a subpoena, we expect you to comply with it, and when you destroy documents that are under subpoena, somebody’s got to be held accountable for that. And that starts with you.”
The charges are rooted in allegations that the IRS improperly targeted conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status for special internal scrutiny starting in 2010. Koskinen, a turnaround specialist, was brought in afterward to clean up the agency amid several official probes and told the Oversight committee in 2014 that relevant records would be protected and turned over to investigators — even though backup tapes containing key emails had been destroyed months earlier.
Koskinen characterized the tapes’ destruction as an “honest mistake” by workers in an IRS warehouse in West Virginia and said he was not aware of it when he first testified to Congress. A Treasury Department inspector general concluded last year that there was no evidence the emails had been destroyed as part of a cover-up, and reviews by the Justice Department and Senate Finance Committee reached similar conclusions. The inspector general, J. Russell George, told Democrats last week that no new materials have emerged to change his findings.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that Koskinen’s critics “simply have not proved their case” for impeachment and called the effort “wildly misguided.”
Should the House formally pursue the matter, he said, “I fear we will have stripped our responsibilities of their weight and dignity, and turned impeachment from a constitutional check of last resort into a tool of political convenience.”
Other Democrats used their questioning time to highlight tax issues involving Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — including his decision to break with a 40-year tradition by not releasing his recent tax returns, as well as allegations of self-dealing by his charitable foundation. Koskinen steered clear of commenting on particular issues, though he did confirm that Trump is free to release returns that are under audit, as Trump has claimed, or proof of such an audit.
The fact that Koskinen is being heard from at all on Wednesday is due to members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus members pushing the issue in the face of clear hesitation from House leaders, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), over whether Koskinen’s conduct rises to the level of impeachment.
The hearing was scheduled only last week after Jordan and Goodlatte struck a deal to avert a vote on an impeachment resolution filed by two Freedom Caucus members who invoked rules allowing the measure to be brought directly to the House floor.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the Freedom Caucus chairman, said in an interview Tuesday that pleas of ignorance will not suffice for him and many other conservatives. The sequence of actions taken by the agency during Koskinen’s tenure, he said, strongly suggests wrongdoing.
“Even if John Koskinen says tomorrow, ‘I didn’t know about it,’ the fact is, you were the guy brought in to clean up the mess … and you allowed that to happen on your watch,” he said. “If that’s not negligent, if that’s not breach of trust, if that’s not dereliction of duty, I don’t know what is.”
Indeed, Koskinen said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of the tapes having been destroyed when he addressed Congress in 2014: “If I had known what I know now, I would have testified differently,” he said.
He did allow that should have qualified the statements he made at the time: “I would have been better advised to say ‘to the best of my knowledge’ or ‘as far as I was told.'”
In prior impeachments of the modern era, the House has only voted after a meticulous fact-finding process and a recommendation from the Judiciary Committee. The panel has not launched such a process, and Koskinen on Wednesday emphasized the need for a “solid and vetted factual and legal record” before holding a vote.
Opening the hearing Wednesday, Goodlatte called the targeting scandal “nothing short of shocking” and criticized Koskinen for having “provided misleading testimony” to another House committee. But he stopped short of recommending formal impeachment proceedings. Goodlatte declined to comment after the hearing on whether he planned any further proceedings.
Several Republican members said they were surprised that Koskinen was still on the job, necessitating the impeachment inquiry. “We shouldn’t need these hearings because you, Mr. Koskinen, should have resigned,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Freedom Caucus member.
Koskinen replied: “If in fact every time an employee makes an honest mistake in an agency, the expectation is that the head of that agency should resign, we’re not going to have many agency heads around.”
Koskinen received a vote of confidence Wednesday from his boss, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who said in a statement that the House “should keep its focus on the needs of the American people, not the kind of political agenda that an impeachment vote here would represent.”
Jordan said Tuesday that “it was understood” that as a part of the deal leading to the hearing that Freedom Caucus members would in turn refrain from pursuing another floor vote on impeachment until after the Nov. 8 election. But one caucus member, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), told reporters last week that he might force a vote immediately following the hearing Wednesday.
“I’ve talked to Tim, and I’ve encouraged him not to do what he said he’s considering doing,” Jordan said Tuesday. Moderate Republicans were prepared to band together with Democrats to defeat the impeachment resolution last week.
But Jordan said that he and the rest of the Freedom Caucus have reserved their rights to force a floor vote after the election if the Judiciary Committee fails to take further action.
“We’re committed to making this happen,” Jordan said. “I hear it every day when I’m out across the fourth district in Ohio: They have had it one standard for you and me, and a different standard for the politically connected. …. They’ve had it, and you can’t blame them.”