Lawmakers were to get their first chance to question the former head of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the man who ran the agency when agents were improperly targeting conservative groups.
Some of the questions were expected to be direct: What did you know, and when did you know it?
They also want to know why former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman did not tell the US Congress that agents had been singling out conservative political groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status — even after he was briefed.
Shulman, who was appointed by former US president George W. Bush, left the IRS in November last year when his five-year term ended. He could prove to be a significant player in a scandal that has driven US President Barack Obama’s administration to distraction. Shulman was to testify before the US Senate Committee on Finance, which has launched a bipartisan investigation into the matter.
On Monday, the White House revealed that chief of staff Denis McDonough and other senior presidential advisers knew late last month that an upcoming report by a US Department of the Treasury inspector general was likely to find that IRS employees had inappropriately targeted conservative political groups.
The White House says McDonough and the other advisers did not tell Obama about the impending report, leaving him to learn the results from news reports on May 10.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama was comfortable with the fact that “some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this is one of them.”
A Treasury official also disclosed on Monday that the department told the White House twice late last month about IRS plans to address the targeting publicly, including during congressional testimony and a possible speech by Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups.
White House deputy chief of staff Mark Childress and Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson were in communication on the matter, as were lawyers at the White House and Treasury.
However, the official said Treasury did not tell the White House about Lerner’s eventual decision to apologize for the targeting at a conference on May 10. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
Republicans have seized on the audit by a Treasury Department inspector general, which found that IRS employees singled out groups with names like “tea party” and “patriots” for special scrutiny that delayed their applications for tax-exempt status — including during last year’s presidential election.
Key words such as “tea party” and “patriots” are often used by conservative groups critical of Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Republicans are using the news to criticize Obama ahead of next year’s elections for Congress. The controversy has also reignited the small-government Tea Party movement, whose influence in last year’s election had waned compared to its muscular role in 2010.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center says 42 percent of adults think the Obama administration was involved in targeting conservative groups. Thirty-one percent said the decision was made by IRS employees, while the rest said they did not know.
On Monday, the panel’s top two members raised questions about the agency’s rationale for why agents targeted conservative groups in the first place. IRS officials have said the agency was facing a large increase in the number of applications for tax-exempt status, so agents adopted inappropriate shortcuts to identify groups that may be involved in political activity.
However, at the time when agents started targeting conservative groups, the number of applications was relatively flat, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general.