Oversight Committee Subpoenas IRS Communications With White House; Cites ‘Ongoing Obstruction’

Terence P. Jeffrey | August 4, 2013 | 12:21pm EDT
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House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - In pursuit of its investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s practice of targeting conservative organizations, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Friday subpoenaed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew demanding that the Treasury Department turn over to the committee certain categories of records, including communications between the IRS and the White House.

The cover letter from Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) to Secretary Lew says the subpoena requires, among other things, that the Treasury provide the committee with “[a]ll communications between or among employees of the Internal Revenue Service’s office of Chief Counsel, employees of the Department of the Treasury, and employees of the Executive Office of the President, referring or relating to tax-exempt organizations or applicants for tax-exempt status, from February 1, 2010 to August 2, 2013.”

The IRS chief counsel in question here is William Wilkins, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. By law, there are only two presidential appointees at the IRS, the commissioner and the chief counsel. At the time the IRS was targeting Tea Party and conservative groups, the IRS commissioner was Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee. Thus, Wilkins—to whose office the tea party applications were referred—was the only Obama political appointee at the IRS.

House Oversight Chairman Issa, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R.-Mich.), Oversight Regulatory Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan (R.-Ohio), and Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R.-La.) sent a letter to acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel on July 17 revealing that IRS employees had been ordered by Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS’s exempt organizations unit, to send tea party applications for tax-exempt status to Wilkins’s office.

“During recent interviews of IRS employees, including Carter Hull, a tax law specialist and self-described 501( c )(4) expert with 48 years of experience at the IRS, the committees were informed that Tea Party applications under his review were, in an unusual turn of events, referred to the Chief Counsel’s office for further review at the direction of Lois Lerner, the head of the Exempt Organizations division. The IRS Chief Counsel is one of two politically appointed officials in the agency.”

Hull’s supervisor confirmed this point to the committee. “[A]ccording to Michael Seto, the head of Mr. Hull’s unit in Washington, Ms. Lerner, gave an atypical instruction that the Tea Party applications undergo special scrutiny that included an uncommon multi-layer review that involved a top adviser to Lerner as well as the Chief Counsel’s office,” said the chairmen’s letter to Werfel. “During an interview, Mr. Seto told the committees’ staff: [Ms. Lerner] sent me email saying that when these cases need to go through multi-tier review and they will eventually have to go [through her staff] and the chief counsel’s office.”

The chairmen’s letter continued: “Indeed, according to Mr. Hull, sometime in the winter of 2010-2011, the senior adviser to Lois Lerner told him the IRS Chief Counsel’s office would need to review these applications.”

Called to testify at a May 22 hearing of the Oversight Committee, Lerner gave an opening statement and then refused to answer any questions from committee members, invoking her 5th Amendment right not to incriminate herself.  On June 28, the committee voted 22-17 to approve a resolution stating thatLerner, by giving a statement before the committee, had waived her right to remain silent under the 5th Amendment.

According to Issa’s letter to Treasury Secretary Lew, the committee’s subpoena also specifically requires the administration to hand over all “communication sent or received by Lois Lerner, from January 1, 2009 to August 2, 2013” and all “communications sent or received by William Wilkins, from February 1, 2010 to August 2, 2013.”

Four days before the Oversight Committee issued the subpoena, on July 30, Issa and Jordan had sent a letter to Acting IRS Commissioner Werfel stating that in responding to committee’s request for documents on the targeting of conservative groups, the IRS had deliberately--but for unexplained reasons--not searched for emails sent between the IRS and the White House relevant to the committee's investigation. The letter also said that the IRS had unilaterally decided to limit the timeframe in which it searched for responsive documents from IRS Chief Counsel Wilkins and to categorize some of these documents as “private” and thus not give them to the committee.

“Finally, the IRS’s most recent letter to the committee, dated July 26, 2013, raises concerns that the IRS unilaterally decided not to produce certain responsive documents to the committee,” Issa and Jordan wrote Werfel. “The July 26, 2013, letter states that the IRS refined various searches, including a recent search for 2010 election information that identified approximately 660,000 potentially responsive documents, ‘by eliminating  any documents that [IRS] reviewers had previously identified as … private in nature.’ (emphasis added). Moreover, searches performed on Chief Counsel William Wilkins’ documents were also limited to exclude materials that had already ‘been marked as private.’ It is unknown what IRS reviewers consider ‘private’ documents—regardless of what such an amorphous term may mean in the eyes of an IRS reviewer.

“It is also unclear why searches of Mr. Wilkins’ documents were limited to the time period of February 2010 through May 10, 2013, when the committee requested documents through the present,” Issa and Jordan continued. “Likewise, for unknown reasons, the IRS arbitrarily limited searches of domain names to exclude, among others, White House domain names. These revelations add to the committee’s growing list of concerns that the IRS is attempting to obstruct the committee’s investigation.”

Back on May 14, in fact, the House Ways and Means Committee had sent a letter to then-acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller specifically demanding that the IRS provide the committee with all records of communications between the IRS and the White House on the targeting of conservative groups.

“Did the IRS at any time notify the White House of the targeting of conservative or other groups? the committee asked Miller in a letter signed by both Chairman Dave Camp (R.-Mich.) and Ranking Member Sander Levin (D.-Mich.) “Provide all documents and communications between the IRS and the White House on this matter.”

The committee gave the IRS a May 21 deadline for complying with this request. The IRS did not comply.

In their July 30 letter to Acting Commissioner Werfel, Issa and Jordan said they were “extremely disappointed that the IRS had not fully cooperated with the committee’s investigation.”

“Despite your public promises of unfettered cooperation with congressional inquiries, we ask that you cease this obstruction and assis the committee with its constitutional oversight obligations,” Issa and Jordan told Werfel.

In his August 2 cover letter sending the committee’s subpoena to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Issa cited what he called the IRS's "ongoing obstruction" of the committee's investigation and said that “the IRS has engaged in a systematic effort to delay, frustrate, impede, and obstruct the committee’s investigation.”

In their July 30 letter to Acting Commissioner Werfel, Issa and Jordan had pointedly stated: “Obstructing a congressional investigation is a crime.”

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