June 2nd, 2013
10:14 AM ET
9 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.”

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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. Jeff

    Somebody will go to jail over this. The question is how high up the food chain it will go. I find it hard to believe that Obama prosecutes so many people over leaks yet is uninformed about what the IRS is doing. He's incompetent but he's not stupid.

    June 2, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  2. GI Joe

    Don't you love his form of judge, jury, executioner? His GUT feeling says someone is guilty and he will waste time and money digging until he either finds the evidence or can find someone to plant it for him to see.

    Why can't those republicans work FOR the people of this country and stop the waste.

    June 2, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  3. JohnB

    This is very simple.

    The group in Cincinnati is charged with reviewing all of these requests for tax-exempt status under this code. All of them. When they get a sudden surge in applications, they are right to be suspicious. This team in Cinci isn't deciding things on their own: by definition, they report up through the chain of command and that is in Washington DC. Now, if you were a senior manager with oversight of that group in Cinci, and you see this, what are you going to do? You are going to ask for a sample of the applications, to take a look at them and see what is in them. That's what happened here. Ask for 7, from the 40 they had. This seems completely consistent with what any decent manager would do. But its being painted as "criminal".

    Now, the bigger question is what was going on with the two additional named groups that weren't selected in the initial sample (which was the first 7 applications). That might be classed as fishing, or targeting. Again though, if they'd been given any ideas that those groups might be suspect, its incumbent on the management to take a look for themselves and see if anything looks amiss. To not do so is dereliction of duty and not providing required oversight.

    Issa is trying to argue that the management is damned if you do, and damned if you don't. He figures he's got a smoking gun, wants to prove he is right. He doesn't actually have any hard evidence. To find it, he's going to have to assess what went on in the management in DC. He has to find a trial of politicization, that this was directed by someone with a clear political-only motive – i.e. from the White House or the Democratic National Committee. He hasn't done so yet. These emails and interviews with the employees prove nothing. But like a dog with a bone, he's not likely to let it go, even if there's no meat on it.

    June 2, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  4. Come On! Really?

    Who was harmed by this? Physically or financially harmed? That's right, no one. This is an organization that had 200 people reviewing 70,000 applications. A 501(c)(4) designation is for social welfare. Not backing a political party or candidate. The tea party backed both. That is a fact. Again no one was harmed so there shouldn't be this waste of taxpayer money to try and make a mountain out of a mole hill.

    June 2, 2013 01:46 pm at 1:46 pm |
  5. Tim

    It is indeed time to impeach Barack Obama.

    June 2, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  6. stevetall

    Personally, I favor investigations of ALL non-profit political groups. Are you people just thick, or do you really think that these political groups, funded by wealthy, right-wing weasels were actually trying to follow the law? Since when? These extremists don't care about the law or the intent of the law. All they care about is overthrowing the president and his more moderate ideas about capitalism and how the American people should fit into it. Smarten up, chumps. There is no comparison to Nixon, no impeachable offenses, and no denying the fact that America is finally becoming more socially and environmentally aware. Getting trickled down upon for so long hasn't worked well for anyone except the super-rich and their political minions.

    June 2, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  7. Oh For Pete's Sake!

    Thank goodness for Issa and the Republicans who are pursuing this disgraceful scandal.

    As for the poster above who foolishly stated that Benghazi has GONE because it wasn't a scandal..........think again! Benghazi will NEVER go away – new Democrats lot level cover-ups are STILL surfacing. Thanks again to the REPUBLICANS.
    They are fighting FOR America – not against her!

    June 2, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  8. TKO

    Yeah, sure. This from a guy who torched his own business, stole three cars and engaged in other nefarious bs. This from a guy whose own finances could have used a much tougher and deeper look by the IRS.


    June 2, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  9. Mohammad

    He said Washington DC he didn't say the white house.

    June 2, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  10. northerstar

    It is likely that the White House did not direct this. However it does appear that people with direct access to the President (Chief of Staff & WH Counsel) were made aware that this targeting was going on. No one expects the President to know what everyone in the Federal Gov't is doing; but we expect him to step up/step in when necessary. The IRS was "in the ditch" and The President should have been made aware and launched his own investigation. He appears "behind the curve once again". An Ambassador die in one of our Embassies & "no one knew" about the pending attack or crisis. If this were "real world" business the "shareholders" would hold management accountable. Why can't voters. According to this administration; no one is responsible for anything when our gov't fails.

    June 2, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  11. Ta111

    Obama and his cronies are in big trouble. The onion is getting peeled back, one layer at a time and more and more lies from the admin are being exposed. Carney is a massive liar.

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  12. waitaminute

    Ignorance is plentiful on this board. There is sworn testimony from a IRS agent here, and yet Libs think it is a lie. Let Obama stay in office. POTUS is a festering wound on the body of the DNC. I am happy to watch it bleed out and die.

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  13. Duker

    The IRS should go and audit the Tea Party groups in question. Why? See what social welfare projects they have actually accomplished

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  14. don in albuquerque

    Yes, the ugly truth is starting to emerge........These so called "Tax Scandals" have been going on for decades, but it is much more fun to whine about it then to fix it. How many hearings have we had about Benghazi? I'm sure we are approaching the 100 mark, and still nothing. Nothing except it was a terrible tragedy, such tragedies happen when you send people to work in the most dangerous places on earth. The Ugly Truth is all these hearings are for nothing but playing politics. How many judges do you think would allow Issa to enter evidence like "my gut feeling". Thats right, zip, none, nada. What attorney in their right mind would allow a client to testify before this Kangaroo Court. Thats right, zip, none, nada.

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  15. Codestud3

    History will condemn Obama and will absolve his critics.

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  16. Oh For Pete's Sake!

    The IRS also targeted Hispanic Catholic groups. Made them fill out personal questionnaires – the secretly sent them to the Department of Immigration!
    This is NOT low level drones in the IRS – this is a concerted attack on groups SPECIFICALLY targeted by WASHINGTON.
    And since Obama is President – the buck stops with HIM no matter how he tries to wriggle out of it.

    June 2, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  17. Johnny

    It's amazing to me how Obama supporters, as people, choose to turn a blind eye. How can these people be taken seriously?

    June 2, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  18. DMC

    Issa is trying to cater to the same mindset who think the moon landing was a government hoax.

    Show him the unemployment line.

    June 2, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  19. censored

    Who would have thunk it?

    June 2, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  20. Anthony... proud tax payer

    "Gut feeling" IS NOT (let me repeat IS NOT) proof, evidence or fact.

    Quit wasting EVERYONE's time Issa. The grown ups are trying to continue with America's recovery.

    June 2, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  21. wildernessyes

    I have no problem with the IRS scrutinizing all groups that want a tax exempt status. That is there job. The tea party and far right groups are clearly dishonest and only pursuing agendas that hurt the our nation. Hate, intolerance and ignorance should be scrutinized.

    June 2, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  22. Ta111

    You ilbs on here are complete fools. These employees have already stated "facts " which show that the admin is lying. They said it was 2 lonely employees. WRONG. These employees have ALREADY proven that false. Issa is doing a great job. It's called a slow and methodical case. The IRS is delaying turning over docs, but now the employees are starting to get pissed off because of all the admin lies. This is going to go very high up. This next few weeks are going to be fun. Also, don't forget about the DOJ scandal and going after reporters as co-conspirators. Holder is in big trouble.

    June 2, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  23. mjd

    why should tea party groups or liberal groups be granted tax exempt status? they are all political and should NOT qualify!! what's the big deal here?

    June 2, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  24. Duffy

    Welcome to the new version "Kenneth Starr" working for the repugs to knife President Obama any way they can. All morals and ethics aside. Repugs begged the Dems not to prosecute bush and they didn't but this is their "reward". Dems are just plain nicer people 🙂 Not that I think it is worth our time to argue. The elite rule while the rest of us peons drool....

    June 2, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  25. the what if.

    Every "scandal" republicans talk about is always a if thats the case or my gut says but they never provide any proof. They go on wild goose chases hoping to find something and still have yet to do so. Its no wonder they havent won the white house or senate in years. Buncha liars and story tellers right now.

    June 2, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
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