By Ken Berry
Who knew what about the "Tea Party scandal" and when? Congress continued to dig deeper into the matter last week as it interviewed staffers from the Cincinnati office of the IRS where "rogue" agents allegedly initiated the actions (see sidebar). Based on the interviews, a misfired e-mail may have alerted certain IRS officials earlier than previously thought.
The furor began to unfold on May 10 after it was revealed that organizations applying for tax-exempt status were targeted based on terms like "tea party" and "patriot." Since the allegations came to light, IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller has been replaced, a criminal investigation has been launched, and three congressional committees commenced hearings. A new investigative report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), which also highlighted excessive IRS spending at training conferences, has only added fuel to the fire.
According to Reuters and news reports from other reputable sources, interview transcripts show that Elizabeth Hofacre, an IRS official in Cincinnati, was corresponding with IRS tax attorney Carter Hull in July 2010 about "emerging issues" in the tax collection agency's Exempt Organizations (EO) division. Hofacre was asked to summarize her findings and notify a small group within the EO unit in Washington, DC. However, she unintentionally sent the e-mail to a much larger group.
"Everybody in DC got it by mistake", Hofacre said in the transcripts. She has since clarified that she was referring to officials in the IRS Exempt Organizations Rulings and Agreements unit.
Neither Hofacre nor Gary Muthert, another IRS staffer in the Cincinnati office, knew who asked for names to be added to the "be on the lookout" (BOLO) list in the first place. However, when Muthert was initially asked by his supervisor to look for "Tea Party" applications, he said he was told "Washington, DC, wanted some cases", according to the interview transcripts.
The interviews were conducted by attorneys at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Two more interviews with IRS employees are scheduled for this week.
Lois Lerner, the EO division head who has placed on administrative leave after she pleaded her Fifth Amendment right, said she first learned of the (BOLO list of terms in June 2011 – more than a year after the e-mail – and promptly addressed the issue. TIGTA did not dispute that claim.
Thus far, TIGTA has said there is no evidence linking creation of the BOLO list to high-ranking IRS officials or other officials in the Treasury Department or the White House. But the case is far from closed.