by BRAD ROLLINS
Hays County’s two heavy-hitting congressmen — political polar opposites who find agreement on high-profile national issues as rarely as their respective parties do — have both waded into the fray over the extent of an Internal Revenue Service operation that targeted tea party and other conservatives groups for extra scrutiny.
Their combined 46 years in Congress have afforded U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, and U.S. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, powerful committee posts and, with them, recurring character roles and ample opportunity to play them. Most recently, Doggett and Smith have been in the arena as scandal unfolds over the administration’s alleged use of the IRS to target conservative groups and of the Department of Justice to seize journalists’ phone records.
On Wednesday, Smith used a House Judiciary committee hearing to elicit a headline-making commitment from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a national investigation of whether the Obama administration’s IRS targeted conservative groups on a larger scale than has so far come to light. Prior to that hearing, the IRS had maintained the bad-actors were limited to a single branch office in Ohio.
“The alleged actions by government employees to target conservative organizations are dangerous, unconstitutional and possibly criminal. Targeting organizations for their political views threatens our democracy and violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Smith, whose district includes the central part of Hays County including western San Marcos and Buda.
At a hearing today of the House Ways and Means committee, Doggett, the panel’s highest-ranking Democrat, called the IRS admissions “outrageous and inexcusable” but, in a statement to the Mercury shortly thereafter, referred to the targeting of tea party-related groups as “one recent IRS failure,” not reason to mistrust the entire federal government.
Answering Doggett’s questions, the Treasury department’s inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George, said he had not found “evidence of corruption at the IRS” nor that the agency was “rotten to its core.”
“Have you … determined that the IRS picks who wins and who loses in America?” Doggett asked George, who has held appointments during both Bush administrations and worked for Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.
“I don’t believe that is the case,” George said, according to a partial transcript of the proceedings provided by Doggett’s office.
Doggett continued, “It is important that in addressing and fully correcting one wrong, we not commit and be involved in other wrongs, such as encouraging the proliferation of secret corporate money, not just the proliferation and pollution of our democracy by that money, but that it be tax-subsidized secret corporate money.”
Earlier in the week at Smith’s judiciary committee, with the IRS scandal widening, Holder said, “Those (actions) were, I think, as everyone can agree, if not criminal, they were certainly outrageous and unacceptable. But we are examining the facts to see if there were criminal violations.”
(An opinion piece published in the New York Times today suggests that Holder’s promise of a criminal investigation may have been intentionally narrow in scope, focused on whether members of targeted groups were denied their civil rights — a standard difficult to prove and not typically used to prosecute public corruption cases — instead of whether IRS officials lied to or mislead Congress about the problems. The article by a Michigan law professor also said the investigation announcement gives the Obama administration officials an excuse for not discussing the allegations on the grounds that they could taint an active investigation.)
Pre-empting a damaging report set for release this week, the IRS official who oversees tax-exempt organizations told reporters on May 10 that a group of low-level, Cincinnati-based IRS employees under her charge had singled out about 75 organizations with “tea party” or “patriot” in their name for more intensive review of their application for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status as social welfare group.
On Monday, however, the Washington Post reported that IRS officials in Washington and California had also requested unusually extensive information from tea party groups, “making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed,” the newspaper reported.
An inspector general’s report released on Tuesday laid much of the blame for field agents running amok on lax supervision from IRS brass in Washington.