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 The day after that, April 25, 2012, the IRS chief counsel office offered "additional comments and draft guidance" for screening tax-exempt applications.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.