By Ken Berry
The congressional committee investigating the "Tea Party scandal" – the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – and the IRS continue to snipe back and forth at each other. After Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) complained about "stalling tactics," IRS Principal Deputy Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement Daniel Werfel defended the agency in a written response. Now Issa has issued a subpoena compelling the IRS to produce the documents he says are essential for the committee's investigation.
The latest action culminated a turbulent week in the nation's capital. In a letter delivered to Werfel on July 30, Issa wrote that the IRS wasn't complying with requests to provide the information the committee sought. "Although the IRS has identified over 64 million pages of documents as responsive to congressional oversight requests, the agency has produced to the Committee only a total of about 12,000 pages, or a mere 0.019 percent of all responsive documents," the letter said.
Around the same time, Dave Camp (R-MI) chairman of the main tax-writing committee in the House, the Ways and Means Committee, released a report detailing the alleged improprieties in the IRS Exempt Organizations (EO) division. The report indicated that Tea Party and other conservative groups were far more likely to be denied tax-exempt status, or have their applications postponed, than liberal groups. The Ways and Means Committee is also seeking more documentation from the IRS. "We have received less than 3 percent of the documents responsive to the investigation," said Camp.
Werfel's letter to the House Oversight Committee received on August 2 reiterated the agency's commitment to "transparency and cooperation" with all the congressional inquiries. Echoing a previous statement by IRS spokesperson Michelle Eldridge, he wrote that seventy attorneys are going through the tedious task of reviewing the responsive documents. "By any measure, this is an enormous undertaking for the IRS," Werfel wrote to Issa. "We are aggressively working to share, gather, and provide information requested by your committee and others, and we continue to do so."
Werfel estimated that the IRS may have to review as many as 1.64 million documents, many of which are purported by the IRS to be irrelevant. Significantly, he said the agency is revising its search terms to speed up the process.
Apparently, the response wasn't enough to placate Issa. "I've asked you for information; you're not forthcoming," he told Werfel. "The office of chief counsel, a politically appointed office, has been compromised."
Issa is investigating the role, if any, that William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel, may have played in the Tea Party scandal. To this point, there's no evidence that Wilkins himself was involved. In his letter, Werfel wrote that a search of Wilkins' e-mails found seven responsive documents. Six were sent to Issa's staff, while the seventh was a copy of the inspector general's report containing taxpayer information. "Further, we have offered to have Mr. Wilkins participate in an interview with your staff, and they have indicated they prefer not to interview him at this time," wrote Werfel.
Congress has now convened for a five-week, end-of-summer recess, but no one expects this conflict to cool off anytime soon. The subpoena issued by Issa will likely keep the fire burning.