WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Sunday told Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly there is not even a “smidgen of corruption” in the IRS targeting scandal.
Tell that to Richmond, Texas, resident Catherine Engelbrecht. In two decades as a small business owner, she had never been audited or investigated, but in 2010 she asked the IRS for non-profit status for her grassroots organizations True the Vote and King Street Patriots. Since then she, her organizations, and her company have been subjected to at least 15 visits from the IRS, FBI, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
“It certainly makes one stop and think when there is inter-agency collusion,” Engelbrecht said Thursday. “It is the weaponization of government.”
Engelbrecht's comments came during a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing, part of a renewed Republican effort to get answers on IRS targeting of conservative groups. During the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke about IRS intimidation on the Senate floor, while Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, held a conference call with grassroots organizations to discuss the current state of Republican efforts.
“This scandal is not over,” said attorney Cleta Mitchell, who hardly looked at her notes as she reeled off story after story of IRS targeting. “The lying has not stopped.”
Also Thursday, GOP leaders announced a letter to new IRS commissioner John Koskinen urging him to scrap new guidelines the Obama administration proposed in November for groups seeking 501(c)(4) non-profit status. The regulations—which replace guidelines in place since 1959—bar civic organizations from a range of activities, including voter registration drives, distributing voter guides, using any candidate’s name, or words such as “oppose,” “support,” and “reject.” The public has until Feb. 27 to submit comments on the new rules.
“These new regulations will effectively codify into law the very practices that bring me here today,” Engelbrecht told lawmakers. “If those regulations pass, non-profit organizations across the country will be destroyed.”
The Obama administration painted the rules as clarification for what constitutes political activity, but on Wednesday the Ways and Means Committee released a 2012 email from a high-ranking Treasury Department official to Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS tax exempt division, discussing an “off-plan” project on 501(c)(4) organizations. Witness Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told lawmakers it now makes more sense why Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify last year before a House panel.
The IRS has apologized for what it called “horrible customer service,” but has denied any political motivations for the improper targeting of conservative groups. Democrats on Thursday were quick to point out that some progressive groups had also been caught up in the targeting. Sekulow read aloud numbers the IRS itself compiled: It targeted 104 conservative groups, asked an average of 15 questions, and approved 46 percent of applications. In contrast, the agency targeted seven progressive groups, asked an average of 4.7 questions, and approved 100 percent of those applications.
Democrats repeatedly complained the hearing was not balanced and took aim at Mitchell for only representing conservative clients. “You don’t get to play for both USC and Notre Dame,” she said in reply. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Democrats had nine days notice to bring in a left-leaning group and asked ranking member Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., if he could name one progressive group that had been targeted. Cartwright declined to answer.
Cartwright did acknowledge “it’s fair to criticize” Obama’s judgement that no wrongdoing occurred and said he is “deeply troubled” over the alleged targeting. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, on Wednesday predicted the comment would earn the president PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” for a second straight year.
Cartwright and other Democrats reiterated that the investigation is ongoing, but Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. asked how in six months 13 Justice Department (DOJ) employees working on the case haven’t had time to interview either of the witnesses at the table or any of Sekulow's 41 clients who are suing the IRS.
Republicans think they know: Barbara Bosserman, the lead DOJ investigator, donated $6,750 to Obama’s re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee. She was invited to testify but did not appear. Democrats said the donations do not indicate bias and it would have been inappropriate for her to appear before a committee to discuss an ongoing investigation. Jordan pointed out that the DOJ employs more than 10,000 people, and fewer than than 1 percent donated as much as Bosserman to political causes.
After the hearing, Sekulow told me the way to resolve the targeting scandal is to appoint a special prosecutor.
Democrats took aim throughout the hearing at Engelbrecht—implying her organization, True the Vote, is discriminatory and impedes people from voting—after she announced she would file an ethics complaint against Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the Oversight committee. Engelbrecht accused Cummings of an “abuse of power” after he sent her three letters indicating the committee was investigating her. Cummings denied wrongdoing and said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was copied in on each letter to Engelbrecht.