The Obama administration is refusing to publicly release more than 500 documents on the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups.
Twenty months after the IRS scandal broke, there are still many unanswered questions about who was spearheading the agency’s scrutiny of conservative-leaning organizations.
The Hill sought access to government documents that might provide a glimpse of the decision-making through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The Hill asked for 2013 emails and other correspondence between the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). The request specifically sought emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner and Treasury officials, including Secretary Jack Lew, while the inspector general was working on its explosive May 2013 report that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to review the political activities of tax-exempt groups.
TIGTA opted not to release any of the 512 documents covered by the request, citing various exemptions in the law. The Hill recently appealed the FOIA decision, but TIGTA denied the appeal. TIGTA also declined to comment for this article.
Will anyone be charged?
In its written response to The Hill, TIGTA cited FOIA exemptions ranging from interagency communication to personal privacy. It also claimed it cannot release relevant documents “when interference with the law enforcement proceedings can be reasonably expected.”
Yet, congressional Republicans say there is no evidence of any prosecution in the works, and media outlets have indicated that the Department of Justice and the FBI have already determined that no charges will be filed.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) notes that eight months after Lerner was held in contempt of Congress for not testifying at two hearings, the matter has not yet been referred to a grand jury. The contempt citation is in the hands of Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who was appointed by President Obama.
Asked for comment on the administration’s FOIA response to The Hill, Jordan said, “It’s par for the course. We’ve had a difficult time getting information from the IRS and the Department of Justice.” Jordan, a senior member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has held numerous hearings on the IRS scandal.
Last week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the IRS recently delivered 86,000 pages of new documents to the panel. Hatch added, “These documents ... were given to us without notice or explanation roughly twenty months after we made our initial document request [on the targeting].”
Republicans in both the House and Senate are stepping up their investigations of the IRS. They have criticized the IRS and TIGTA for not informing Congress about the Tea Party targeting before the 2012 presidential election. GOP lawmakers say the administration has largely stonewalled them, while Democrats have called the probes “a witch hunt.”
Who knew what when?
The crux of the GOP’s IRS targeting investigations is: Who knew what when?
On Friday, May 10, 2013, Lerner famously planted a question at an American Bar Association (ABA) conference where she acknowledged “inappropriate” handling of tax-exempt applications in 2012. Lerner, who has since said she did nothing wrong, released the news before the TIGTA report came out the following week.
The Obama administration considered several other options on how to release the information, including an April conference at Georgetown University and an April 25, 2013, Ways and Means subcommittee hearing. Then-Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson told Republican investigators that he informed the White House about the IRS plan to disclose the targeting “so that the White House wouldn’t be surprised by the news.”
Soon after Lerner’s comments attracted national attention, White House officials acknowledged they knew about the report but didn’t tell Obama about it.
Lew told Congress he first heard about the IRS matter at a “getting to know you” meeting with TIGTA chief J. Russell George in March 2013. But he said he didn’t learn the full extent of the findings until the media reported Lerner’s remarks at the ABA meeting.
Lew served as White House chief of staff before succeeding Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in 2013. Republicans on Capitol Hill are considering asking Geithner questions later this year on what he knew about the IRS’s targeting.
Weekly activity reports
TIGTA sends the Treasury secretary “weekly activity reports” on what it is working on. These reports, which are common in the executive branch and obtained through a FOIA request, serve as a “heads up” to Cabinet heads from inspectors general. They include categories such as “potential or expected press stories,” “upcoming hearings” and TIGTA reports that are awaiting public release.
From January through early May 2013, TIGTA referenced 25 reports that were subsequently issued in the weekly activity reports to Lew. But the agency’s most explosive report was not included in any of these weekly memos. It is unclear why, though a government official pointed out that Lerner spoke about the targeting at the ABA conference before TIGTA released its report. Her comments likely accelerated the Treasury Department’s clearance process.
Regardless, TIGTA officials briefed IRS and Treasury officials in 2012 and 2013, according to TIGTA memos provided to Congress. On May 30, 2012, TIGTA informed then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman and his deputies that criteria targeting Tea Party groups “were being used. ...”
Jordan said neither the IRS nor TIGTA informed the Congress at that time — less than six months before the 2012 elections. He also pointed out Shulman didn’t correct his March 22, 2012, testimony to the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee where he said “there is absolutely no targeting” of Tea Party groups.
TIGTA’s FOIA practices have come under criticism before. In the fall of last year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia admonished the agency for its use of FOIA exemptions. Cause of Action, a nonprofit group that has sued TIGTA, announced in December that the agency declined to fork over more than 2,000 documents related to a FOIA request.
Judicial Watch, another group that has sued the Obama administration on FOIA, said in December that the DOJ withheld 832 documents pertaining to meetings between the IRS and the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and Election Crimes Division.
Some of the documents that The Hill requested were released to Judicial Watch last year after a judge ruled in favor of the conservative group’s lawsuit.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the DOJ will soon release a report on the IRS targeting that will include “some final recommendations.”
Lerner, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment before Congress, has given a lengthy interview to DOJ officials.