May 21, 2013

Former IRS commissioner heads to Hill amid scandal

Alan Fram and Stephen Ohlemacher / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are getting their first chance to question the former head of the Internal Revenue Service, the man who ran the agency when agents were improperly targeting tea party groups.

click image to enlarge

In this Aug. 2, 2012, photo, then-Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman testifies on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers want to know why Shulman didn't tell Congress that agents had been singling out conservative political groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status – even after he was briefed.

AP

Some of the questions on Tuesday will be direct: What did you know, and when did you know it?

They also want to know why former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman didn't tell Congress that agents had been singling out conservative political groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status — even after he was briefed.

Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, left the IRS in November when his five-year term ended. He could prove to be a significant player in a scandal that has driven the Obama administration to distraction. Shulman is testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, which has launched a bipartisan investigation into the matter.

On Monday, the White House revealed that chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior presidential advisers knew in late April that an upcoming inspector general's report was likely to find that IRS employees had inappropriately targeted conservative political groups.

The White House says McDonough and the other advisers did not tell President Barack Obama about the impending report, leaving him to learn the results from news reports on May 10. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was comfortable with the fact that "some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this is one of them."

A Treasury official also disclosed Monday that the department told the White House twice in late April about IRS plans to address the targeting publicly, including during congressional testimony and a possible speech by Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. White House deputy chief of staff Mark Childress and Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson were in communication on the matter, as were lawyers at the White House and Treasury.

However, the official said Treasury did not tell the White House about Lerner's eventual decision to apologize for the targeting at a conference on May 10. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.

The IRS is an independent agency within the Treasury Department. Because of that independent status, the official said Treasury deferred to the IRS in its decision about how to make the targeting public.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center says 42 percent of adults think the Obama administration was involved in targeting conservative groups. Thirty-one percent said the decision was made by IRS employees, while the rest said they didn't know.

On Monday, the panel's top two members raised questions about the agency's rationale for why agents targeted conservative groups in the first place. IRS officials have said the agency was facing a large increase in the number of applications for tax-exempt status, so agents adopted inappropriate shortcuts to identify groups that may be involved in political activity.

But at the time when agents started targeting conservative groups, the number of applications was relatively flat, according to a report by the agency's inspector general.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican, sent a letter to the agency Monday, asking for an explanation. The letter included 41 separate requests for information. They gave the IRS until May 31 to respond.

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