WASHINGTON -- The IRS political appointee at the epicenter of insinuations that the Obama White House directed the targeting of tea party groups never discussed the issue with the president, a spokesman for the tax agency told The Huffington Post.
Over the past few days, several news organizations have reported that William Wilkins, the IRS chief counsel, met with President Barack Obama in the White House two days before his office suggested new criteria for how the IRS should scrutinize groups applying for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. The stories implied that Wilkins had taken directives from the highest level of the administration before deciding to inappropriately screen tea party organizations.
But the IRS said no such discussion took place.
"On April 23, 2012, William Wilkins attended an inter-agency outreach meeting at the White House with the president and a range of senior-appointed officials from various government agencies," IRS spokesman Bruce Friedland said. "No IRS matters or tax issues were discussed. Wilkins did not meet with anyone else at the White House that day."
Separately, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told CBS News on Wednesday that there was "no evidence" that a political appointee had been involved in the IRS screening of tea party groups.
Though not completely exculpatory –- it is, after all, impossible to know what was said at the meeting without being in the room -– the statements take the wind out of the latest charges circulating around the IRS issue.
The original story, published by the Daily Caller, highlighted a series of connections that on the surface appear damning, but placed in a broader context leave questions unanswered.
As the Caller reported, Carter Hull, one of the IRS officials who screened 501(c)(4) applicants, had testified that he had attended a hearing in August 2011 with officials from the IRS chief counsel's office in which they asked him to develop a template letter for tea party applicants. The Caller also reported that the day after Wilkins made his White House visit, his boss, then-IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, made a separate visit to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The day after that, April 25, 2012, the IRS chief counsel office offered "additional comments and draft guidance" for screening tax-exempt applications.
"There's no way to know what was said in that meeting, but the timing is very scary," the Daily Caller reporter who wrote that story told Fox News on Wednesday.
But the IRS stated as far back as May that Wilkins never attended the August 2011 meeting with Hull. In fact National Review, a rival conservative publication, reported that the lawyers Hull met with were "removed from Wilkins by five levels of management."
National Review went on to quote a senior GOP aide as saying that witnesses have "testified that Wilkins became aware of the targeting of tea-party groups at some point in 2012." But here again, the context complicates things. It was roughly at that time that the IRS was attempting to tone down the "Be On The Lookout" lists it used for screening 501(c)(4) applicants. According to the Treasury inspector general's report that looked into the IRS screening, the BOLO criteria in January 2012 was:
political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, educating on the constitution and bill of rights, social economic reform/movement
By May 2012, the IRS BOLO had been changed to this:
501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit).
If Wilkins had, as has been suggested, taken the president's order to make life miserable for the tea party, the revised IRS guidelines seemed to move in the opposite direction.
So what was Wilkins doing at that meeting with Obama?
A Democratic source on the Hill passed along an email authored by Wilkins on April 23 in which he detailed the agenda items for that White House meeting. The email, shared on condition that it not be republished, said that the purpose of the gathering was to "improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the government," and discuss "creative and practical solutions" to some "difficult issues" confronting the agency. There was no mention of the screening processes for prospective 501(c)(4) organizations.
Additionally, on Wednesday, the publication Tax Analysts reported that one reason Wilkins met with the president on that day was to have a photo op (a picture was actually located on the White House's photo stream). The site confirmed as much by talking to Neile Miller, a National Nuclear Security Administration appointee also at the meeting.
"This was just a courtesy meeting where you get to go and talk about -- not agency-specific stuff -- but more kind of organization and management across the government," Miller told Tax Analysts.
Also on HuffPost:
President Barack Obama
"This is pretty straightforward," Obama said at a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/13/obama-irs-scandal_n_3266577.html" target="_blank">press conference</a>. "If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that is outrageous, and there is no place for it, and they have to be held fully accountable, because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they are applying the laws in a non-partisan way. You should feel that way regardless of party." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Rubio <a href="http://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=bc8ce2a9-4e95-4792-8744-501d0c1b63b3" target="_blank">penned a letter</a> to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew demanding the IRS commissioner's resignation. The letter begins: "Recent revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s selective and deliberate targeting of conservative organizations are outrageous and seriously concerning. This years-long abuse of government power is an assault on the free speech rights of all Americans. This direct assault on our Constitution further justifies the American people’s distrust in government and its ability to properly implement our laws." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)
"The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history. Today, we are left with serious questions: who is ultimately responsible for this travesty? What actions will the Obama administration take to hold them accountable? And have other federal agencies used government powers to attack Americans for partisan reasons? House Republicans have made oversight of federal agencies a top priority on behalf of the American people, and I applaud the work that members such as Charles Boustany, Darrell Issa and Jim Jordan have done to bring this issue to light. I also strongly support Sen. McConnell’s call for a transparent, government-wide review to ensure similar practices are not happening elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy," Boehner said in a <a href="http://www.speaker.gov/press-release/speaker-boehner-statement-irs-targeting-conservative-groups" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.)
Buchanan also <a href="http://buchanan.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4787:buchanan-to-treasury-secretary-the-nations-trust-in-government-was-betrayed&catid=1:latest-news" target="_blank">wrote a letter</a> calling for the IRS commissioner's resignation. His letter reads: "On March 22, 2012, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee which oversees the IRS, we heard then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman clearly state that the IRS did not engage in the practices of which it is now accused saying "there is absolutely no targeting." Yet, less than a year earlier, Commissioner Shulman's own deputy, Lois Lerner, was made aware that such malpractice had indeed occurred. It became evident that groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names were extremely vulnerable to auditing harassment. Even nonprofit organizations that sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution were unfairly singled out for scrutiny. The nation's trust in government was betrayed by this unconscionable behavior. On behalf of my constituents, your immediate response is not only warranted but essential to clearing up a matter that would have our founding fathers rolling in their graves." (AP Photo/Steve Nesius, File)
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.)
"It is unconscionable that the IRS deliberately targeted individuals based on their political beliefs. Absolutely no one should come under extra scrutiny from the IRS because of their political affiliation. It’s simply un-American," Paulsen said in a <a href="http://paulsen.house.gov/press-releases/paulsen-statement-on-fridays-hearing-examining-irs-targeting-conservative-groups/" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
“I have long been concerned with reports that the IRS has unfairly targeted some political groups over others – a charge that they have repeatedly denied. In March 2012, I sent IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman a letter demanding an explanation of this unacceptable behavior. Now, more than a year later, the IRS has admitted to what we have long suspected – it was targeting tea party groups. The IRS’s actions are unacceptable, and I commend Chairman Dave Camp and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany for moving forward with a full investigation. We will continue to work to ensure there are protections in place so no American, regardless of political affiliation, has their right to free speech threatened by the IRS," Marchant said in a <a href="http://marchant.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=333635" target="_blank">statement</a>. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
<i>CORRECTION: An earlier version of this slideshow incorrectly identified Udall as a Republican.</i>
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.)
Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
“Today’s revelation that the IRS targeted average Americans using taxpayer dollars solely for disagreeing with them politically is completely unacceptable from this Administration. “Partisan politics have consistently characterized this White House, and the Administration must take immediate disciplinary action and ensure American citizens are not subject to this type of Orwellian persecution again," Cornyn said in a <a href="http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=NewsReleases&ContentRecord_id=ebc9edeb-f748-45cf-a6b3-0143c6cb41c0" target="_blank">statement</a>. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)