By Teresa Ambord
Just weeks ago, the country groaned when it learned the IRS had unfairly targeted conservative groups seeking tax exempt status, particularly groups that contained words such as "tea party" in their names.
With a Democrat in the Oval Office, the screams heard around the country were that the targeting of conservative groups was politically motivated, maybe even ordered by the Obama administration. Now the focus has shifted. Democrats say, indeed, it was politically motivated, but not the way it appears, and they're turning the focus on the watchdog – J. Russell George.
George, head of the Treasury Inspector General of Tax Administration (TIGTA), has been the "unquestioned arbiter" of the tax agency for a long time. He was appointed to his position by President George W. Bush. Now Democrats are crying foul, suggesting George's May 14, 2013, report – Inappropriate Criteria Were Used to Identify Tax-Exempt Applications for Review – which identified the targeting of Tea Party groups, was partisan.
What caused the shift?
A document Congress received along with TIGTA's report shows the term "progressives" appeared on a list of terms used by IRS screeners. That led Democrats to ask why the TIGTA report only mentioned the targeting of conservative groups, not progressive groups.
"In many instances the names were neutral . . . in that you couldn't necessarily attribute it to one particular affiliation or another", George said during a May 22 hearing of the House Oversight Committee.
Various Democrats in Congress have suddenly weighed in with stories of how they long suspected political shenanigans, including some who said progressive groups had come to them, complaining they too had been targeted.
At the suggestions of partisan misconduct, George's spokeswoman, Karen Kraushaar, responded with a flat rejection, reminding Congress that the inspector general doesn't come up with reasons to investigate on his own. TIGTA only investigates upon receiving requests from Congress. Correction: TIGTA investigates all allegations of misconduct, fraud, waste, and abuse, not just those received from Congress.
"Our audit report answered the questions it was asked to address", Kraushaar said. "Other questions that are now being raised are the subject of additional review. . . . The inspector general for tax administration has made a mission of being even-handed and suggestions to the contrary are misplaced."
The report, which turned up the targeting in the first place, came as a result of a congressional request, just as Kraushaar said. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked TIGTA to determine whether conservative groups were being targeted by the IRS. POLITICO reports that no Democrats made a similar request . . . until after this became an issue.
Congressional committees expect to bring George back to explain why his report didn't mention that progressive groups were also on the list.
"It's true that he was appointed by a Republican, but he has always been extremely even-handed – he has made a point to be", said one government official who asked to remain anonymous. "Whenever TIGTA has positive findings to report, it reports them. When TIGTA's findings are critical, it reports those as well."
Prominent Democrats, including California's Nancy Pelosi, are calling for investigations into the targeting to stop. However, Paul Ryan (R-WI) told CBS News it's too soon, and there are too many unanswered questions.
"What we still don't know is who ordered this kind of targeting, why did it take so long for them to clean it up?" said Ryan. "We're going to let the facts take us where they take us." That of course means, wherever the blame is appropriate, whether it falls on Republicans, Democrats, or, more specifically, the White House.
"We know that the IRS did target people based upon their political beliefs", Ryan said. "Who cares whether they're right or left? . . . The fact that they're targeting people for harassment based upon their political beliefs should be cause enough alone for outrage."
As for the IRS, President Obama appointed Danny Werfel as the IRS Principal Deputy Commissioner to unravel the tangled web of problems in the tax agency, including where the order for the targeting came from. Originally, we were told the inappropriate targeting ceased in spring of 2012 (before the 2012 presidential election). Werfel, however, said at the time he took over in May 2013, it was still going on.
A report from the Associated Press (AP) on June 27 casts possible doubt on the Democrat claim that "progressive groups faced the same extent of mistreatment as conservative organizations, dozens of which faced delays exceeding a year." The AP obtained a letter from George, which says the term "progressives" did appear on the IRS list of groups with potential problems, but no indication has been found that the applications from progressive groups were sidelined for additional scrutiny.
It's unclear at this point how congressional committees will proceed. Stay tuned. As with most things in the government, the story only grows weirder.