WASHINGTON -- One week after he released partial transcripts of interviews with IRS officials involved in the scandal surrounding the targeting of conservative groups, the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said releasing the full transcripts would be "reckless" and "irresponsible."
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) pushed back Tuesday against calls to put out more information on the committee's investigation into the controversy, sparked after a Treasury Department Inspector General report revealed the IRS had singled out tea party groups applying for nonprofit status for extra scrutiny. Responding specifically to criticism from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democratic member of the committee, Issa said that releasing full interviews conducted with IRS employees would hurt the ongoing investigation.
"Your decision to publicly announce that the investigation should wrap up was irresponsible, but not surprising," said Issa, in a letter to Cummings. "However, your push to release entire transcripts from witness interviews while the investigation remains active was reckless and threatened to undermine the integrity of the Committee’s investigation."
The position is a tenuous one for Issa, who during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" just over a week ago promised that the full transcripts would be released. On that same program, Issa revealed several partial transcripts that suggested the directive to screen tea party groups came from officials in Washington.
Since then, The Huffington Post has sent four emails asking Issa's office when the full transcripts would be made public. Not one was returned. When asked why Issa's release of a partial transcript was fine but he opposed releasing the transcripts in full, a spokesman for the congressman referred HuffPost to another statement.
“Limited releases of testimony may also serve to empower other witnesses to become whistleblowers and serve to vindicate individuals who have been subjected to criticism or retaliation at the hands of their managers," said Issa, in that statement. "On the other hand, if a full transcript were released, it would serve as a roadmap of the Committee’s investigation."
It could take weeks, if not months, to see the full transcripts should the committee wait to release them until the investigation is completed. According to a Democratic aide on the committee, investigators have interviewed five IRS employees so far and have 18 more to go. In addition, investigators are hoping to look through hundred of thousands of documents that could shed light on the tax agency's controversial screening practices.
Unwilling to allow the partial transcripts Issa released to be the only evidence in the public record, Cummings this week also released segments of interviews. In a Sunday memo to his colleagues on the oversight committee, the congressman said that a manager in the IRS Cincinnati office who oversaw the nonprofit screening said that no one in Washington ordered him to employ the practice of targeting tea party groups.
"Although the Committee interviewed a self-identified ‘conservative Republican’ who denied any White House involvement or any political motivation for screening Tea Party cases, Chairman Issa now appears to be going back on his promise to release the full interview transcripts of IRS employees," said Cummings, in a statement. "Chairman Issa changes his mind so fast that even when I agree with him, we’re not on the same page. I fully support responsible oversight, but cherry picking transcript excerpts to fuel partisan and unsubstantiated claims is not a credible or effective way to investigate."
On Tuesday, an aide to Cummings said the congressman would release the full transcripts of the already completed interviews by the end of the week, if Issa did not do so himself -- though the aide also cautioned that those plans could change.
The squabbling between the chairman and ranking member of the oversight committee has made the conversation surrounding the scandal far more contentious. When news first broke that the IRS had targeted conservative groups, there was near bipartisan condemnation of the agency.
Over time, however, politics has entered the debate, and Issa's handling of the committee's investigation has been criticized as a poorly disguised attempt to tie the issue to the president.
When Issa called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a "paid liar" earlier this month, he was criticized publicly by Democrats and privately by his own party. More recently, Republicans have been more open in their concerns about where the investigation is heading.
As Politico reported on Tuesday:
Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, a senior Ways and Means Republican who chairs the panel’s Oversight subcommittee, criticized Issa’s tactics, saying the release of partial transcripts could “adversely alter our ability to get future information from other IRS employees.”
“Just simply from a process standpoint, you don’t want to do that and alter what others might say,” Boustany told POLITICO. “I really am concerned that it could tip this into the political realm rather than a true detailed investigation to get the facts out.”
He added: “A lot of this has to be done quietly, obviously, as we piece together what has happened, and once we piece it together and get the firm proof, then you can come out” and say what happened.
DISCLOSURE: This reporter's spouse works for the White House Counsel's Office on congressional oversight, but not on matters pertaining to the IRS.