IRS scandal 101: Why House doesn't have all Lois Lerner e-mails yet

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen rejects the assertion his agency is 'slow rolling' requests for Lois Lerner's e-mails by a House panel looking for a White House connection to the scandal.  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 26, 2014, before the House Oversight Committee’s continuing probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the government’s tax agency.

An IRS official was in the hot seat before Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California and his House oversight committee again Wednesday – this time to explain why the agency is “slow rolling” committee requests for Lois Lerner e-mails.

Ms. Lerner led the IRS division that considers applications for tax-exempt status when it disproportionately targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny in the 2010 and 2012 elections. (Some liberal groups also were flagged.)

Lerner, who retired in September, has called the extra targeting of conservative groups “inappropriate,” but denied breaking any laws. The IRS said she was “neglectful” of her duty, but found no evidence of political bias. Last May, the Treasury inspector general found "inappropriate" criteria were used to screen tax-exempt groups. The IRS has since implemented all of the report's recommendations.

In his testimony Wednesday, John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner since December, pushed back against Issa, calling his slow-rolling claim an “improper characterization.”

The following is a Q&A on what the fuss is all about:

Q: Why the intense interest in Lois Lerner’s e-mails?

A: The figure at the center of six investigations has twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions before Representative Issa’s panel. In the absence of her testimony, the e-mails and other documents could help lawmakers learn who knew of the IRS policies and how they were formulated.

The committee asked last May for “all communications” sent to and from Lerner spanning from August 2009 to August 2013, just before she retired. The panel later subpoenaed the communications.

What are the lawmakers looking for?

One thing Republicans are searching for is a link between the White House and Lerner, which is why Issa’s committee has requested all Lerner communications (as well as many other documents) – and not only those related to the tax-exempt review process. The lawmakers are frustrated that not all have been delivered.

“What part of all don’t you and the IRS understand?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio asked Wednesday. “What if there’s an e-mail from the White House that says … hey Lois, keep up the great work, we appreciate what you’re doing?”

Democrats contend Republicans are on a fishing expedition.

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which advocates for consumers, contrasts Issa’s panel with the other main congressional panel investigating the IRS case, the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I think Issa’s made it very clear that he’s trying to uncover this conspiracy,” says Mr. Holman, while “Ways and Means seems a little more concerned with trying to come up with answers.”

Why hasn’t the IRS been able to produce all of the e-mails and other documents?

Mr. Koskinen, the IRS chief, testified that so far, 250 IRS employees have spent more than 100,000 hours working directly on complying with the various investigations, at a cost of $8 million. The agency has spent another $6 million to $8 million on technology to help comply with the probes, he said.

The agency has handed over more than 1.1 million documents to congressional committees, including some Lerner e-mails and documents.

But documents handed to Issa’s panel have to be redacted for personal taxpayer information. That’s not an issue with Ways and Means, which, as the tax-writing committee, has the authority to view documents in their original form.

Also, Koskinen indicated in his testimony that the IRS has been trying to prioritize its delivery of documents to the House oversight committee according to relevancy.

The committee's document request – which goes far beyond Lerner’s e-mails – is so broad, Koskinen said, that it could take years, not months, to fulfill.

Representative Jordan shot back: “Frankly, with due respect, we don’t care what you think is irrelevant.”

What do Republicans say they have learned from the documents delivered so far?

In a March 7 statement, Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp (R) of Michigan said that from Lerner documents it has received, the committee knows that it was the IRS head office in Washington, and not a branch office gone rogue, that “orchestrated” the targeting of conservative groups seeking or having tax-exempt status, and that the D.C. headquarters formed the proposed tax rules “designed to push conservative groups out of the public forum.”

A March 11 report on Lerner, issued by Issa’s committee staff but not signed off on by Democrats, concludes that Lerner “created unprecedented roadblocks for tea party organizations.” She also, “worked surreptitiously to advance new Obama administration regulations that curtail the activities” of such groups.

What happens next?

Despite threatening Koskinen with contempt for slow compliance, Issa seemed to recognize a need to agree on a way to prioritize document delivery.

“I appreciate that we will have to work with you to prioritize and we will,” he said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, also on Wednesday, his committee announced it had received clearance from the House Counsel’s office to go ahead and vote on whether to hold Lerner in contempt for not testifying. If the GOP-controlled committee does that, a contempt case is likely to end up before a judge.

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