June 2nd, 2013
10:14 AM ET
2 years ago

Issa: Cincinnati IRS employees say direction came from Washington

Updated 5:56 p.m. ET Sunday 6/2

(CNN) - In an exclusive interview Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said interviews with workers in the Cincinnati IRS office show targeting of conservative groups was "a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters - and we're getting to proving it."

“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 it to go on through the election,” he said. “I’m not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening.”

A bipartisan group of investigators from two House committees – Ways and Means, and Government Reform and Oversight – interviewed two front-line employees from the tax-exempt office last week.

One of the employees hit back against accusations that lower-level employees were responsible for the scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in 2010, telling congressional investigators that the Ohio employees were being “thrown underneath the bus.”

A second "more senior" Cincinnati IRS employee said they began seeking other jobs when they were assigned to look out for applications from tea party groups, because they felt it was inappropriate.

According to excerpts released to CNN by the oversight committee, one of the employees said their supervisor told them the direction to single out conservative groups came from the Washington headquarters in March 2010.

By April, seven hard-copy versions of applications had been sent to Washington, the employee said. In addition, the employee said Washington had requested part of an application by two specific groups, though the excerpts do not disclose the names of those two groups.

Shortly after news of the scandal broke and IRS Commissioner Steven Miller announced his resignation, the IRS said two "rogue" employees in the agency's Cincinnati office were principally responsible for the "overly aggressive" handling of requests by groups with the words “tea party” and “patriot” in their names, a congressional source told CNN.

Issa’s committee released only excerpts and not the full transcripts of the interviews, citing the fact that the investigation is ongoing. CNN asked for the full transcripts, but the committee did not agree to the request. CNN has not seen the full transcripts or the context of the questions and answers.

Read the excerpts below.

However, Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House oversight committee, described Issa's remarks based on the interviews as "reckless" and "unsubstantiated."

“So far, no witnesses who have appeared before the Committee have identified any IRS official in Washington DC who directed employees in Cincinnati to use ‘tea party’ or similar terms to screen applicants for extra scrutiny," Cummings said in a statement.

"Chairman Issa’s reckless statements today are inconsistent with the findings of the Inspector General, who spent more than a year conducting his investigation," he continued. "Rather than lobbing unsubstantiated conclusions on national television for political reasons, we need to work in a bipartisan way to follow the facts where they lead and ensure that the IG’s recommendations are fully implemented."

Cummings' spokeswoman Jennifer Hoffman said it was not "standard practice" for the majority in the committee to keep the transcripts rather than share it with the minority.

"The standard practice would have been for them to provide the transcripts to us when they got them. We have requested them, but have not gotten them," she said.

Issa said the full transcripts would be made public, and he has also subpoenaed the administration for more documents that he says will support claims made in the employee interviews. “As we get those documents ... we will learn the whole truth,” he said.

The oversight committee clarified after the interview that subpoenas have not been issued to the IRS.

For now, however, he has not said he has evidence to verify there was a direct link between Washington and the over-scrutinizing of tea party groups. But he points to the interview, in which one of the employees named an IRS attorney in Washington, D.C. (the name was redacted in the excerpts), who was heavily involved in the process of applying further scrutiny to conservative groups. The employee expressed frustration with the attorney’s “micromanagement,” according to the excerpts.

Citing the decision by IRS tax exempt director Lois Lerner to plead the Fifth in her recent congressional hearing appearance, Issa said “This is a problem that's coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters, and we're getting to proving it. We have 18 more transcribed interviews.”

As the IRS began to disclose information about its admitted mistake, Lerner told reporters that the Cincinnati office, which handles the tax-exempt applications, was overwhelmed with applications in 2010 and began funneling documents from conservative groups into a file that called for further review as a “shortcut,” chalking it up to more of a clerical error.

"It was an error in judgment and it wasn't appropriate," Lerner said May 10 on a conference call with reporters. "But that's what they did."

But two Democratic congressional sources involved in the IRS investigation told CNN's Dana Bash that Issa's characterization of the interviews is misleading.

Their impression from the Cincinnati employees was that the Washington connection the employees were referring to were tax attorney specialists. These individuals answer questions from the tax-exempt division in Ohio about what level of political activity is acceptable for 501(c)(4) status, the sources said.

The tax attorneys work in what is known as the EO Technical Unit–which is in Washington.

According to the sources, an employee identified a tea party case in February 2010 with a problem: The group had checked the box saying it engaged in political activity, but the line agent was not sure how much political activity was allowed for tax exempt status.

(IRS rules dictate that tax exempt groups are allowed to do some type of political advocacy as long as social welfare is their primary activity.)

The employee's question was sent up through the line to Washington, the sources said, where the tax attorney experts were asked to develop future guidance to answer that question, as multiple tea party groups were beginning to take shape in 2010.

The Democratic sources said that's why Washington asked for more cases, like in the example of the Cincinnati employee who was asked to send two specific cases.

However, the sources maintained this was not when the actual targeting began, nor who did it. They're hoping to get more answers in interviews with two other employees next week.

When pressed by reporters in briefings last month, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney–whom Issa referred to as a "paid liar"–reiterated the IRS statement that the activity came from line employees in the Cincinnati office.

Asked by the congressional investigators about the allegations, one employee said, “It’s impossible.”

“As an agent we are controlled by many, many people. We have to submit many, many reports. So the chance of two agents being rogue and doing things like that could never happen,” the employee said.

Further pressed to give a reaction to reports that the blame lies within the Cincinnati office, the employee said: “Well, it's hard to answer the question, because in my mind I still hear people saying we were low-level employees, so we were lower than dirt, according to people in D.C. So, take it for what it is.”

The employee maintained that the office was following directions from Washington. Asked again if the directions to single out tea party applications specifically came from Washington, the employee gave a less certain answer, saying, “I believe so.”

The "more senior" employee told the investigators they were searching for another job in July 2010 after feeling uncomfortable with the task.

“The subject area was extremely sensitive and it was something that I didn't want to be associated with,” the employee said.

Ultimately, Issa said, the employees shouldn’t get a pass.

“Ethically, they clearly knew this was wrong. They should have become whistle-blowers. They should have done something on behalf of the American people,” he said.

The IRS has told House GOP investigators it has identified 88 IRS employees who may have documents relevant to the congressional investigation into targeting of conservative groups.

The agency has so far missed two deadlines to provide documents requested by Congress, but said in a statement Friday that the new acting commissioner, Danny Werfel, is “moving aggressively and taking the data requests very seriously.”

“As a precautionary measure, the IRS is casting a wide net to capture any potentially related materials. Our goal is to be exceedingly thorough during this process to ensure we identify any and all pertinent records," the IRS statement said. "The IRS has received numerous congressional requests involving an extensive set of questions and calls for data. Responding to these requests is a top priority for us. We have been in contact with committee staff, and we continue to provide them updates as we diligently work through these requests."

Read the excerpts below:

One Cincinnati IRS employee interviewed by the Oversight Committee rejects the White House assertion (that the Cincinnati office was responsible) and points to Washington as being responsible for targeting effort (from 5/30 interview):

Q In early 2010, was there a time when you became aware of applications that referenced Tea Party or other conservative groups?
A In March of 2010, I was made aware.

******

Q Okay. Now, was there a point around this time period when [your supervisor] asked you to do a search for similar applications?
A Yes.
Q To the best of your recollection, when was this request made?
A Sometime in early March of 2010.
******
Q Did [your supervisor] give you any indication of the need for the search, any more context?
A He told me that Washington, D.C., wanted some cases.

******

Q So as of April 2010, these 40 cases were held at that moment in your group; is that right?
A Some were.
Q How many were held there?
A Less than 40. Some went to Washington, D.C.
Q Okay. How many went to Washington, D.C.?
A I sent seven.

******

Q So you prepared seven hard copy versions of the applications to go to Washington, D.C.?
A Correct.

******

Q Did he give you any sort of indication as to why he requested you to do that?
[…]
A He said Washington, D.C. wanted seven. Because at one point I believe I heard they were thinking 10, but it came down to seven. I said okay, seven.
Q How did you decide which seven were sent?
A Just the first seven.
Q The first seven to come into the system?
A Yes.

*****

Q Did anyone else ever make a request that you send any cases to Washington?
A [Different IRS employee] wanted to have two cases that she couldn't ¬¬ Washington, D.C. wanted them, but she couldn't find the paper. So she requested me, through an email, to find these cases for her and to send them to Washington, D.C.
Q When was this, what time frame?
A I don't recall the time frame, maybe May of 2010.

******

Q But just to be clear, she told you the specific names of these applicants.
A Yes.
Q And she told you that Washington, D.C. had requested these two specific applications be sent to D.C.
A Yes, or parts of them.

******

Q Okay. So she asked you to send particular parts of these applications.
A Mm¬hmm.
Q And that was unusual. Did you say that?
A Yes.
Q And she indicated that Washington had requested these specific parts of these specific applications; is that right?
A Correct.

******

Q So what do you think about this, that allegation has been made, I think as you have seen in lots of press reports, that there were two rogue agents in Cincinnati that are sort of responsible for all of the issues that we have been talking about today. What do you think about those allegations?
[…]
A It's impossible. As an agent we are controlled by many, many people. We have to submit many, many reports. So the chance of two agents being rogue and doing things like that could never happen.

******

Q And you've heard, I'm sure, news reports about individuals here in Washington saying this is a problem that was originated in and contained in the Cincinnati office, and that it was the Cincinnati office that was at fault. What is your reaction to those types of stories?
[…]
A Well, it's hard to answer the question because in my mind I still hear people saying we were low¬level employees, so we were lower than dirt, according to people in D.C. So, take it for what it is. They were basically throwing us underneath the bus.

******

Q So is it your perspective that ultimately the responsible parties for the decisions that were reported by the IG are not in the Cincinnati office?
A I don't know how to answer that question. I mean, from an agent standpoint, we didn't do anything wrong. We followed directions based on other people telling us what to do.
Q And you ultimately followed directions from Washington; is that correct?
A If direction had come down from Washington, yes.
Q But with respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to Tea Party applications, those directions emanated from Washington; is that right?
A I believe so.

And another more senior IRS Cincinnati employee complained about micromanagement from D.C.:

Q But you specifically recall that the BOLO terms included "Tea Party?"
A Yes, I do.
Q And it was your understanding ¬¬ was it your understanding that the purpose of the BOLO was to identify Tea Party groups?
A That is correct.
Q Was it your understanding that the purpose of the BOLO was to identify conservative groups?
A Yes, it was.
Q Was it your understanding that the purpose of the BOLO was to identify Republican groups?
A Yes, it was.

******

Q Earlier I believe you informed us that the primary reason for applying for another job in July [2010] was because of the micromanagement from [Washington, DC, IRS Attorney], is that correct?
A Right. It was the whole Tea Party. It was the whole picture. I mean, it was the micromanagement. The fact that the subject area was extremely sensitive and it was something that I didn't want to be associated with.
Q Why didn't you want to be associated with it?
A For what happened now. I mean, rogue agent? Even though I was taking all my direction from EO Technical, I didn't want my name in the paper for being this rogue agent for a project I had no control over.
Q Did you think there was something inappropriate about what was happening in 2010?
A Yes. The inappropriateness was not processing these applications fairly and timely.

******

Q You have stated you had concerns with the fairness and the timeliness of the application process. Did you have concerns with just the fact that these cases were grouped together and you were the only one handling them?
A I was the only one handling the Tea Party's, that is correct.
Q Did that specifically cause you concern?
A Yes, it did. And I was the only person handling them.
Q Were you concerned that you didn't have the capacity to process all of the applications in a timely manner?
A That is correct. And it is just ¬¬ I mean, like you brought up, the micromanagement, the fact that the topic was just weirdly handled was a huge concern to me.


Filed under: Darrell Issa • IRS
soundoff (572 Responses)
  1. Githm

    I directed the investigation of the Tea Party. And I would do it again. They needed to be scrutinized. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was applying for tax exempt status under the guise of political activism. The same group of people screaming for smaller government were trying to hide behind the government to keep from paying taxes. What a bunch of hypocrites. So I directed the agents to micromanage these cases to avoid fraudulent activity by those simply seeking tax shelters for their minimal involvement in political activities. Their ploy was to further undermine the government by not paying taxes and the got the spotlight. So there you have it. I did it. I was behind the whole thing. Sincerely,

    June 3, 2013 03:30 am at 3:30 am |
  2. Who Knows...?

    Darrell Issa is an un-convicted crook and thief, who got extremely lucky not to serve time in prison. That man has no shame.

    June 3, 2013 04:00 am at 4:00 am |
  3. Namechris

    Why is it nut being screamed from the mountain that only three blatantly political organizations were denied this bogus charitable status... THREE LIBERAL GROUPS. The reason Tea Party groups were scrutinized? They were filing bogus charitable applications en masse. This whole absurd story is the post Benghazi Benghazi.

    June 3, 2013 04:27 am at 4:27 am |
  4. Robert

    Get the aluminum hats out! It's crazy conspiracy time! Whoo hoo.

    June 3, 2013 04:33 am at 4:33 am |
  5. ghostdansing

    Political Correctness (PC) aside, groups that are generally anti-government, anti-tax, and in some cases even question the government's authority to levy taxes are a good place to start when looking for tax fraud. In the final analysis, we are talking about the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing people and organizations trying to get tax exempt services, engaged in activity that seek to undermine the collection of revenue.

    June 3, 2013 04:53 am at 4:53 am |
  6. ghostdansing

    Political Correctness (PC) aside, we are talking about the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizing, for fraud potential, people/organizations that seek to undermine government by undermining the collection of government revenue. That is not an arbitrary criteria.

    The only oversight issue here is the failure of leadership to anticipate the magnitude of political circus that can be generated by these same people.

    June 3, 2013 04:58 am at 4:58 am |
  7. tjm07

    sticking your head in the sand doesn't change the fact that no one in government employ does anything without direction from above.

    June 3, 2013 05:08 am at 5:08 am |
  8. mike Lake Orion Michigan

    I'm sorry but we all knew this! Low level IRS agents would never, on their own, shake down certain groups on their own without a directive from Washington. I worked for the Government for 28 years and am positive this just doesn't happen because of some disgruntled employee!

    June 3, 2013 05:25 am at 5:25 am |
  9. billfit

    LOL!!!! This is about to get interesting. Another Watergate. Goodbye Obongo! LOL!!!!!!!

    June 3, 2013 05:26 am at 5:26 am |
  10. Stephen Kriz

    The real scandal is that these 501(c)(4)groups are allowed -to exist at all, gaming the tax system to run attack ads against the opposition. The average American is too stupid or apathetic to know anything or do anything about it, however.

    June 3, 2013 05:37 am at 5:37 am |
  11. Duane St.pete FL

    As an independent watching all this unfold its crazy......the GOP people on here want heads to roll (I agree) and the liberals faced with facts that this was a politically motivated attack by the ones in the White House do what? Make excuses and justify instead of condemning.....that's sad as this type of stuff is not only illegal but scary and very wrong....it goes against everything we stand for as a country. Remember liberals.....country above party.call this stuff for what it is.......

    June 3, 2013 05:46 am at 5:46 am |
  12. Oliver A. Dyer

    Without a doubt the IRS Cincinnati office did a bad thing. However this obsession of always trying to connect it back to Washington/White House seems a bit much. If the GOP would put this much effort in working on the the things that would improve the lives of the average citizen, they would make some real gains in the next national election.

    June 3, 2013 05:51 am at 5:51 am |
  13. CTRay

    Naturally, this is the man the Republicans vested with total power to investigate the Obama administration for any reason at any time. You don’t appoint someone with actual ethics to do your dirty work, because, well, that wouldn’t work. “Now that he had been given the power to subpoena, investigate, and harass the Obama Administration, Issa was being described as a future leader of his party—and the man most likely to weaken the President before the 2012 election…”
    What’s Issa’s word worth? Not much, except as a warning that what you’re hearing may likely be inaccurate. For example, Issa claims he was always given “highest marks” by the Army and had provided “security” to then President Nixon, but a reporter dug into his past and found that Nixon had not even attended the events Issa’ claimed to have provided security for, and Issa was known as a car thief in the army (separate incident from his later more well known arrests for car theft).
    Furthermore, “In May of 1998, Lance Williams, of the San Francisco Examiner, reported that Issa had not always received the “highest possible” ratings in the Army. In fact, at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Williams also discovered that Issa didn’t provide security for Nixon at the 1971 World Series, because Nixon didn’t attend any of the games.”
    Issa was soon after arrested for stealing a red Maserati, but the judge dropped those charges around the time that Issa was arrested in a separate incident for having a .25 Colt and “44 rounds of ammo and a tear gas gun and two rounds of ammo for it.” Just the kind of guy you want leading your party, especially when your party stands for vigilante justice via the NRA. Issa pleaded that case down to a lesser charge.
    Just when things started to look up for Issa in the Army, he was arrested yet again for car theft, but this time he was also indicted for grand theft. The prosecution ended up dropping that case after smoke and mirrors coupled denial and some fancy Issa footwork. That didn’t stop Issa from committing hit and run soon after evading prosecution.
    After that narrow escape from the law, Issa was suspected by officials of arson and accused of firing an employee by giving him a box with a gun in it. While investigating the arson charges, authorities realized that they could not trace the original capital Issa used to start his business. Shady dealings, but Issa once again managed to escape the law, but not their suspicion. All of this adds up to a great criminal resume for a henchman, and that is what Issa is for the GOP.

    June 3, 2013 05:58 am at 5:58 am |
  14. steve

    the more you dig the more that will be revealed
    the WH is shaking, because the fire is reaching the doorsteps
    quit lying and just fess up for once

    June 3, 2013 06:16 am at 6:16 am |
  15. sc

    what if? the targeting was justified, what if? it turns out these groups should not have gotten tax exempt status? what if? it turns out the red party directed more scrutiny on these tax exempt groups? Trying to get Obama's group. what if? It appears you people fail to realize the government is self serving, even Issa, his paycheck like all government employees are taxpayer money direct.

    June 3, 2013 06:22 am at 6:22 am |
  16. Marie MD

    If a car thief/illegal gun totting Obama hater fool was not the head of the oversigh committee I would pay more attention to anything the IRS did or didn't do as they kept the tea trolls from receiving tax exempt status. As if the koch brothers needed tax exempt status with all their millions that they have used to bring forth this "grassroots" band of retirees receiving the same that they are "fighting and blabbering" against.
    It's sort of like having the flake from MN in the "intelligence" committee.

    June 3, 2013 06:28 am at 6:28 am |
  17. Normal In NH

    Absolutely ponderous...Candy, and the liberal drones commenting here, are actually defending and supporting the IRS and their DC ordered, blatant political persecution! I may have seen all I need to come to the unfortunate conclusion this country is beyond recovery.

    June 3, 2013 06:36 am at 6:36 am |
  18. tayllor1234

    Tyranny, lies, deceit, intimidation, mistrust... .must have been what Obama meant by his statement of fundamentally changing America.
    Today, my heart breaks for what this administration has done to a once proud nation.

    June 3, 2013 06:42 am at 6:42 am |
  19. david shoup

    Issa has found the WMDs!!

    June 3, 2013 06:50 am at 6:50 am |
  20. Surprised

    I have a feeling the buck stops at the very top. This will be quite interesting to see how it plays out.

    June 3, 2013 06:53 am at 6:53 am |
  21. fear not

    Just end the madness already... 15 percent flat tax for all, no more tax "exempt" anything... not even god gets a break here. The only reason Washington cannot get this done IS because they loose the power of fear.

    June 3, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  22. may40

    Of course the WH is involved in this. How many times did the head of the IRS and Obama meet? Over 100 times. How many times did Bush meet with the head of the IRS? Twice at the most for holiday parties. This administration is crooked. IMPEACH!!!!!!

    June 3, 2013 07:58 am at 7:58 am |
  23. carlos

    careful how you point that finger Mr. Issa – I think you have some skeletons in your closet too.

    June 3, 2013 08:00 am at 8:00 am |
  24. seanster5977

    Looks like the liberal denial machine is kicking into high gear here. I think most of the liberals here commenting have repeated lies so many times they now believe them.

    June 3, 2013 08:03 am at 8:03 am |
  25. Az

    The political elite that use there committee position to protect either one of the major parties at the expense of the American people should be locked up AND loose any retirement benefits that they have accrued! Hang the politicians to free the citizens.

    June 3, 2013 08:06 am at 8:06 am |
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