IRS emails released Wednesday show that just before the tea party targeting scandal was revealed last year, Lois G. Lerner and her colleagues at the tax agency were talking with the Justice Department about making examples out of nonprofit groups that they felt were violating campaign laws by playing political roles.
The emails, obtained by Judicial Watch, also show that Ms. Lerner was reluctant to face questions from Congress even before her first hearing, at which she asserted her right to remain silent. It was an indication that she distrusted Republican motives from the start.
The emails also show how important congressional Democrats were in pushing for action at the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department, which talked about how to follow up on a senator’s demand to pursue a test case against a nonprofit group that was spending money on politics.
“Not only do these emails further prove the coordination among the IRS, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Justice Department and committee Democrats to target conservatives, they also show that had our committee not requested the Inspector General’s investigation when we did, Eric Holder’s politicized Justice Department would likely have been leveling trumped up criminal charges against Tea Party groups to intimidate them from exercising their Constitutional rights,” Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who is leading an investigative subcommittee looking into the IRS, said in a statement.
In May 2013, just before the IRS targeting was publicly exposed, Ms. Lerner fielded a request from the Justice Department to talk about following up on Senate Democrats’ push to prosecute groups that the lawmakers thought “lied” when they told the FEC that they wouldn’t be conducting political activities but made political expenditures anyway.
The Justice Department requested a meeting to talk about what to do and wanted to know whether that would interfere with the IRS.
“I think we should do it,” Ms. Lerner replied in an internal IRS email laying out early plans for the meeting.
A day after that communication, the IRS admitted to targeting tea party groups. It’s unclear whether the meeting ever took place.
Earlier in 2013, IRS employees were talking on another email chain about the push among some campaign finance activists to have the IRS sue a nonprofit group over its campaign activities. In her part of the conversation, Ms. Lerner said her boss from a prior job at the FEC was one of those pushing for a lawsuit.
“This is their latest push to shut these down. One IRS prosecution would make an impact and they wouldn’t feel so comfortable doing the stuff,” Ms. Lerner said.
But in another part of that email thread, she acknowledged that it would be difficult to define “whether a particular expenditure was political intervention.”
“Whether there was a false statement or fraud regarding [a] description of an alleged political expenditure that doesn’t say vote for or vote against is not realistic under current law,” she said. “Everyone is looking for a magic bullet or scapegoat — there isn’t one. The law in this area is just hard.”
Judicial Watch said it had to sue to compel the IRS to turn over the emails.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has told Congress that his agency already has turned over hundreds of thousands of documents, but it will be the end of the year before his agency can turn over the rest of Ms. Lerner’s emails and years before it can produce all of the documents that House Republicans have demanded.
In the meantime, Republicans are pushing ahead with action against Ms. Lerner.
Last week, just before a two-week recess, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress and the House Ways and Means Committee voted to refer criminal charges to the Justice Department.
Both of those resolutions, which cleared the committees on party-line votes, will need to go to the full House for approval.
Ms. Lerner has denied wrongdoing, and her attorney has accused Republicans of partisanship.
“The vote is the latest event in the majority’s never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall’s midterm elections,” William W. Taylor III said after the oversight committee’s contempt vote.
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption,” he said.
The IRS inspector general reported that the agency improperly targeted tea party and conservative groups for intrusive scrutiny and held up many of their applications asking for nonprofit status.
Some of those applications, filed as early as 2010, were still pending as of the middle of last month.
The emails released by Judicial Watch on Wednesday show that the agency didn’t deny any applications and kept many of them pending until they saw the inspector general’s scorching audit.