By Ken Berry
After the initial round of hearings held by three congressional committees in our nation's capital this week, at least we know the IRS wrongfully targeted conservative "tea party" groups applying for tax-exempt status. But precious little else has been revealed about who knew what and when. Frustrated lawmakers have vowed to get to the bottom of the mess.
The leading members of the three committees – two in the House and one in the Senate – say they're just getting started. Also, the Justice Department announced it has launched a criminal investigation into the matter, while the newly appointed head of the IRS intends to conduct his own review.
"The first step in this effort must be to get to the bottom of the recent allegations regarding the criteria to determine eligibility for tax-exempt status", wrote IRS Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel in an internal memo on May 22. "The missteps uncovered in the recent inspector general report are inexcusable and cannot be tolerated by any of us. That is why we must work together with the inspector general, the Justice Department, and Congress to ensure that responsible parties are held accountable for the inappropriate activities that occurred, and that we correct the breakdowns in process and oversight that allowed them to occur."
Werfel succeeded former IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller, who resigned May 15 over the flap. Miller had been at the post since November 2012.
A veritable "who's who" of high-ranking officials has already paraded before the panels. Former IRS Commissioner Shulman said he first learned that conservative groups had been improperly singled out for extra scrutiny in the spring of 2012. He testified that he kept the information inside the IRS. Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin claimed he didn't know the details of the wrongdoings until May 10. And Lois Learner, head of the IRS Exempt Organizations division, invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
Lerner, who has been accused of making false statements to Congress in the past, insisted she did nothing wrong. "I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations", said Lerner, who nevertheless refused to provide any testimony. It seems likely that she'll be recalled by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA).
The Obama administration has also come under fire. A spokesperson for the White House said on May 22 the administration was facing "legitimate criticisms" for its shifting accounts about its knowledge of events. Initially, Press Secretary Jay Carney said only President Obama's attorney knew the IRS was being investigated prior to the release of the Treasury inspector general's report. Subsequently, he indicated that Obama's chief of staff and other officials also knew about the matter.
More IRS officials are set to appear during the next round of hearings. This scandal isn't going away anytime soon.