Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Stephen Ohlemacher / The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating potential civil rights violations at the Internal Revenue Service after the agency acknowledged it had singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
Other potential crimes include making false statements to authorities and violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities, Holder said.
"I can assure you and the American people that we will take a dispassionate view of this," Holder told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing Wednesday. "This will not be about parties, this will not be about ideological persuasions. Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable."
But, Holder said, it will take time to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing.
Holder announced a day earlier that the Justice department had opened a criminal investigation, joining three committees in Congress that are looking into the matter. As the investigation widened, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he had this question: "Who's going to jail over this scandal?"
"There are laws in place to prevent this type of abuse. Someone made a conscious decision to harass and to hold up these requests for tax exempt status," Boehner said. "I think we need to know who they are and whether they violated the law. Clearly someone violated the law."
Legal experts, however, said it could be difficult to prove that IRS officials or employees knowingly violated the civil rights of conservative groups. It may be easier, if proven to be true, they said, to prove that officials made false statements or obstructed justice in some other way.
"I think it's doubtful that any of these knuckleheads who engaged in the conduct that gave rise to this controversy knowingly believed that they were violating the law," said David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department lawyer. "But that remains to be seen. That's what investigations are for."
"It's more likely than not that the conduct at issue here may constitute violations of IRS rules or standards or protocols or procedures but may fall short of what is necessary to constitute a criminal offense," he said.
Even if IRS agents broke criminal laws in targeting conservative groups, investigators may have to prove they knowingly did it, a high standard, said Brian Galle, a former Justice Department lawyer who teaches law at Boston College.
"If the reason they were pursuing them was in order to punish them for their political activity, there might be a First Amendment concern there," Galle said. "On the other hand, if the reason that they were looking for tea party groups is because there had been press reports about this new group, the tea party, who was aimed primarily at getting more conservative people elected to office, then they were just responding to the evidence. It really depends on what their motives were."
Wednesday's hearing was the first of several in Congress that will focus on the issue.
The House Oversight Committee announced Wednesday that it would hold a hearing May 22, featuring Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax exempt organizations, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, whose five-year term ended in November.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Friday, featuring the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, and the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George.
At Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Lerner misled him and his staff when they asked her about complaints from conservative groups that they were being harassed by the IRS.
"I know for a fact, Lois Lerner lied to me, she lied to our personal staff, she lied to committee staff, she lied in correspondence," Jordan said.
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