WASHINGTON—The head of the Internal Revenue Service told a House committee his agency is today turning over 20,000 documents related to the targeting of conservative groups, but Republicans still charged the IRS with stonewalling the panel’s investigation. Commissioner John Koskinen said supplying all the documents the committee wants could take years, since it involves redacting any sensitive taxpayer information the committee is not authorized to see.
“The full sweep of the subpoena means we will be at this for months, if not years,” said Koskinen, who took over the agency in December. “If you want them all, we’ll give them to you,” but “it’s not going to expedite this investigation.”
Koskinen’s sparring with lawmakers came during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which began more than two years ago investigating claims that the IRS was unfairly targeting some tax-exempt applicants for extra scrutiny. Republicans on Tuesday vented about a lack of responsiveness from the IRS, saying their constituents are demanding answers and have none.
Koskinen bristled at the notion that his agency wasn’t complying with the committee’s demands, insisting IRS employees are doing everything in their power to release documents in a timely manner. He said the agency has already spent more than $14 million to produce documents, including new computer systems to help gather the data. “There are literally millions of emails,” he said.
Koskinen said the IRS has produced more than 690,000 documents for House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, both of which can see confidential taxpayer information. He said other committees have better defined exactly what they need.
The hearing came a day after Oversight chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent a letter to Koskinen listing the subpoenaed documents his committee still hadn’t received. Issa said it’s his understanding some of those requested emails were retrieved within hours last year, but the IRS still hasn’t produced them. Lois Lerner “won’t talk to us, so these emails are the next best substitute,” Issa said. “You know we have access to them.”
Koskinen, a lawyer, said he would turn over the documents, but he repeatedly said he couldn’t predict how soon it could happen. He said the agency is prioritizing Lerner’s emails, and specifically those related to nonprofit application examinations, appeals, and the drafting of new rules—information he said is more relevant to the investigation.
“Frankly, the committee doesn’t care what you think is relevant,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “What if there’s an email from the White House saying, ‘Keep up the great work’?”
Earlier this month, Lerner, the former director of the IRS tax exempt division, again refused to answer questions before the Oversight committee—although she previously met with the Department of Justice to answer questions. The committee one week later released a 141-page report detailing Lerner’s involvement in the targeting, but Republicans expect to find more evidence by reviewing the remainder of her emails.
Issa on Tuesday released a letter from the House counsel saying the committee has met or exceeded all legal requirements to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
Most members of both parties maintained partisan lines of questioning throughout the hearing, but Rep. Stephen Lynch, R-Mass., provided a rare show of bipartisanship. He defended the scope of the committee’s information requests, underscored the seriousness of the targeting, and said IRS cooperation should not be about what’s good for Republicans or Democrats. “It’s incredibly important that we get to the bottom of this,” he said. “We want to send a message that you don’t do this to our people.”
Koskinen also fielded questions about the proposed rule that would dramatically reduce the ability of 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups to engage in the political process. Although he repeated the administration rationale that the rules are intended to provide “clarity” for nonprofit groups, he reserved final judgement on the changes, noting they were developed before he joined the agency.
Koskinen said he wants to read through the 150,000 public comments—a number he said doubles the total comments for all proposed IRS rules in the last seven years—before taking a position on the plan. He vowed the final rule will be fair, clear, and easy to administer.
“It’s important for everyone to know they’re going to be treated fairly,” he told the committee. “For some people, that’s hard to believe right now, but that is our goal going forward.”