Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is determined to link the White House, and President Barack Obama, to the so-called IRS scandal, even though there is no proof one exists. The pugnacious, and severely ambitious partisan is more interested in scoring political points than in getting to the truth.
Earlier this month he made his intentions clear during an appearance on CNN's State of the Union. In speaking about the source of the IRS's inappropriate use of search terms, such as "Tea Party", in its scrutiny of applications for tax-exempt status by conservative groups, Issa pointed to the nation's capital. Issa called White House spokesman Jay Carney a "paid liar" for his claims that the problem was based in the IRS's local Cincinnati office. "This is a problem that was coordinated, in all likelihood, right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it," Issa said.
Of course, "in all likelihood" and "we're getting to proving it" show he does not have the facts to back up his claims. But that will not stop Issa from doing everything to keep his investigation in the headlines, including dribbling out juicy bits of witness interviews from closed-door sessions to selected media outlets. For instance, one of the IRS employees interviewed by the committee said their supervisor told them the direction to single out conservative groups came from the Washington headquarters in March 2010.
But Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat from Maryland, and fellow committee member, called for the entire interview transcripts to be released. He also released testimony from another IRS official, a manager in the Cincinnati office, who describes himself as a conservative, which appears to explain how the IRS came to target conservative groups. "There was a lot of concerns about making sure that any cases that had, you know, similar type activities or items included, that they would be worked on by the same agent and the same group," the manager said. He also said politics was not a factor, and he had no reason to believe the White House was involved.
In response, Issa said, "The testimony excerpts Ranking Member Cummings revealed... did not provide anything enlightening or contradict other witness accounts." He then added, "The only thing Ranking Member Cummings left clear in his comments today is that if it were up to him the investigation would be closed. Fortunately, the decision to close the investigation is not his to make."
This scandal first made headlines on May 10 when an IRS official apologized for the IRS conduct at a legal conference, which triggered a FBI criminal probe. President Obama fired the acting IRS chief, who is a Republican, because of the scandal. An inspector general's report criticized the way the IRS screened conservative groups, saying it placed the agency's impartiality in question.
In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that more than a dozen FBI agents were assigned to investigate the matter. "It's a high-priority investigation and it needs to be handled with care, but it also needs to be pushed aggressively because it's a very important case," Mueller told the committee.
There are good reasons for Congress to be investigating the IRS actions. First of all, it is unacceptable for the IRS to be singling out any group for political reasons. While all of the Tea Party applications were approved, many organizations had to deal with unfair demands. Was this political, or confusion, or just insensitivity on the part of agents?
There was a flood in tax-exempt applications following the Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling in 2010, which made it legal for corporations and unions to spend money on campaigns through political action committees (Super PACs). Section 501(c)(4) of the IRS tax code specifies that Super PACs seeking tax-exempt status must operate exclusively for the promotion of social welfare. But a 1959 IRS interpretation of the code changed the word "exclusively" to "primarily." Exactly what is primarily? Why was the interpretation changed? Should it be exclusively?
Representative Issa has served in Congress for more than a decade. Before being elected, he was a very successful businessman who amassed a fortune estimated at $450 million. But his brash and shoot-from-the-hip style have rubbed even members of his own party the wrong way. His selective release of transcripts in the IRS investigation has opened him up to criticism that he is trying to get the Obama administration rather than pursuing a sound investigation.
Earlier this month, Issa said, "My gut tells me that too many people knew this wrongdoing was going on before the election, and at least by some sort of convenient, benign neglect, allowed to go on through the election." His bottom line, "I'm not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening." Issa's unsubstantiated allegations may get him headlines, but they also raise serious questions about his motives and judgment.