Lawmakers on two committees clashed Tuesday over bills to overhaul the Government Accountability Board and rewrite campaign finance laws, with the head of the board accusing one state senator of McCarthyism in his line of questioning. One of the bills on a fast track in the GOP-controlled Legislature would eliminate the accountability board — the state’s elections and ethics agency — replacing it with a pair of commissions made up equally of Republicans and Democrats. Another would double the amount donors can give candidates. A third would allow people to use the Internet to register to vote, while keeping in place the requirement that people cast ballots in person or by mail.
The Federal Election Commission’s lead member has called for an inspector general’s review to help determine whether the FEC coordinated with the Internal Revenue Service in targeting groups based on their political beliefs. FEC chairman Ellen L. Weintraub said her decision came in response to a request last week from Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), the head of the House Administration Committee, who asked the agency to hand over all of its communications with the IRS since 2008. Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Charles Boustany (D-La.) made a similar request to acting IRS chief Daniel Werfel after publishing e-mails showing that Lois Lerner, the embattled former head of the agency’s exempt-organizations division, acknowledged possibly telling an FEC lawyer that a group did not appear on a publicly available list of tax-exempt groups. Federal law prohibits the IRS from releasing information about organizations that have been denied, but it can publish information about approved groups.
Lois Lerner, the head of the Internal Revenue Service’s division on tax-exempt organizations, was put on administrative leave Thursday, a day after she invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify before a House committee investigating her division’s targeting of conservative groups. Lawmakers from both parties said Thursday that senior I.R.S. officials had requested Ms. Lerner’s resignation but that she refused, forcing them to put her on leave instead. Whether her suspension will lead to dismissal was unclear, given Civil Service rules that govern federal employment. “The I.R.S. owes it to taxpayers to resolve her situation quickly,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. “She shouldn’t be in limbo indefinitely on the taxpayers’ dime.”
The Internal Revenue Service official who first disclosed that the agency had targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny, and in doing so ignited a controversy that has ensnared the White House, denied on Wednesday that she had ever provided false information to Congress. She then invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to testify at a House hearing on the agency’s actions. At the House oversight committee hearing, the chairman, Darrell Issa, seated second from right, talked with an aide. Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, was at left. As the official, Lois Lerner, appeared under subpoena before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she sternly told her questioners that accusations that she had misled Congress in previous testimony were false.
Let’s stipulate that the scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative nonprofit groups portrays government as if drawn in caricature — an almost Keystone Kops-style comedy of errors on the part of low-level staffers, with a vein of possible political bias. Of course, the matter needs to be fully investigated, those responsible need to be held accountable and procedures need to be put in place to ensure that nothing like this can happen again. But let’s also remember what the I.R.S. brouhaha is not. Unlike the abuse of the I.R.S. by President Richard M. Nixon, in this case there’s no evidence that anyone in the White House had any involvement in — nor even any knowledge of — what was going on within the agency’s Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday warned top officials at the Internal Revenue Service that criminal laws on false statements could come into play in a Justice Department investigation on the agency’s targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. Appearing at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder said the investigation would examine whether groups of individuals had their civil rights criminally violated and whether statutes governing I.R.S. conduct were violated. After repeated accusations from senior lawmakers that top I.R.S. officials had lied to them, Mr. Holder also issued a warning: “False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point.” Three Congressional committees already have hearings planned to investigate the agency’s activities, and an early focus appears to be on whether I.R.S. officials lied to members of Congress.
What is known so far about the Internal Revenue Service’s examination of political nonprofit groups doesn’t answer one main question — whether the U.S. tax agency’s actions were malicious or just inept. IRS employees, trying to figure out how to sort through a surge in applications for nonprofit status, used shortcut phrases such as “Tea Party” and “patriot” to flag groups for scrutiny, according to an inspector general’s timeline. After IRS officials raised concerns in June 2011, there’s no evidence that the agency started over with a new system. That scrutiny was elevated to a scandal on May 10, when Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, acknowledged in remarks to a conference of tax lawyers that applications using those phrases had been singled out for extra examination. The filtering done by IRS employees in Cincinnati now imperils the agency’s ability to enforce the laws on politically active nonprofit groups.
On Friday, May 10, a top official with the Internal Revenue Service dropped a bombshell. IRS staffers had singled out conservative organizations with “tea party” or “patriots” in their name that were seeking tax-exempt nonprofit status, subjecting them to extra scrutiny to see if they were abusing the tax law as it relates to political activity. They grilled these conservative groups about their members, their donors, their public statements, and who they employed. And there is no evidence yet that the IRS systemically treated non-conservative groups with the same level of attention. Speaking to a group of tax lawyers, the IRS official, Lois Lerner, who oversees the agency’s exempt organizations division, publicly apologized for the IRS’s actions. Ever since, Democratic and Republican politicians have been falling over themselves to condemn the IRS.