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White House, Politics Played No Role In IRS Targeting, Democratic Report Says

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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questions U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as he testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on April 8, 2014. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images) | NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats released a report Tuesday stating that the Internal Revenue Service's scandal over targeting political social welfare groups was not politically motivated or spurred by the White House.

Instead, the report -- which is being released ahead of key votes to demand new investigations and hold one official in contempt of Congress -- finds that bad management and poor criteria led to screening failures.

The furor erupted in May 2013, when it was revealed that the IRS was subjecting certain groups applying for tax exempt-status to long, detailed scrutiny. Most of those groups were aligned with the Tea Party, although it later emerged that some progressive groups were also given close examination.

The inspector general report that initially shed light on the issue found no political motives for the IRS' actions. It concluded that the IRS had improperly flagged certain groups for scrutiny based on their names and likely political affiliations, instead of their actual behavior.

Yet many Republicans, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, have alleged a much more sinister motivation for the irregular screening, saying the fact that most of the affected groups were conservative shows it was politically driven.

"This was the targeting of the president's political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn't discovered until afterwards," Issa said in an interview with CBS News last May.

In the year since, none of the probes into the scandal have shown a White House connection, but Republicans have nevertheless set up a vote this week to call on the attorney general to name a special counsel to investigate further. They are also planning a contempt of Congress vote against Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS' Exempt Organization division who twice invoked her Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify to Congress.

In something of a pre-emptive strike, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), released a 68-page report Tuesday featuring excerpts from interviews of all 39 people deposed by the committee. All the officials interviewed, from top mangers in Washington to the lower-level workers in the Cincinnati, Ohio office at the center of the screening, denied that political considerations or the White House played a role.

The report goes out of its way to highlight Republicans in the agency who thought the targeting was a bureaucratic problem rather than a political one.

"I do not believe that the screening of these cases had anything to do other than consistency and identifying issues that needed to have further development," said a self-identified "conservative Republican" who oversaw screeners in Cincinnati, among them the staffer who first flagged a Tea Party case.

Asked whether political motivation played a role at the IRS, a Republican tax law specialist in Washington was adamant that it did not.

"No, not at all. That's kind of laughable that people think that. No, not at all," the worker said. "This is purely cases that, unfortunately, Cincinnati didn't have enough guidance on. That (c)(4) area is a very, very difficult area, and there's not much guidance. And so the lingering length of time, unfortunately, was just trying to apply the law to the specific facts of each case."

A manager in Washington who votes Republican and supervised a law specialist handling Tea Party cases held a similarly firm opinion, saying he had "seen or heard nothing that would suggest any political bias," according to the report.

Issa has been criticized in the past for selectively leaking excerpts from government documents without proper context, but a spokeswoman for Issa said it was Cummings who was offering "cherry-picked" statements with his new release of interview excerpts.

The spokeswoman cited a selection in which a lawyer for several of the IRS workers accused Democratic investigators of trying "to put words into a witness'" mouth during depositions. In one case, the lawyer was angry that Democrats used the testimony of a low-level worker to deny White House involvement when the worker had no real way of knowing. The lawyer accused Cummings of abusing "a working person in Cincinnati for political benefit."

However, all 39 witnesses, including those at higher levels of government, appear to have made similar statements exonerating the White House and denying political motivation on the IRS' part.

Cummings has been asking Issa to release the full transcripts of the witness interviews for months. He said in a statement Tuesday that he believes the release of lengthier portions of the interviews will show how universal the feeling was in the agency that politics did not drive the targeting.

"Now that the American people can actually see what each one of these 39 witnesses told the committee -- including even conservative Republican employees at the IRS -- it is clear that there was no White House involvement or political motivation in the screening of tax-exempt applicants, contrary to the accusations made by Chairman Issa before we began this investigation," Cummings said. "I continue to believe that the full transcripts should be made publicly available so the American people can read all the facts for themselves."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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