Washington Bureau

07.18.13

IRS Investigator Under Fire

The investigation into the IRS scandal has become politicized. Who would have thought? Ben Jacobs reports.

J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General who serves as the IRS watchdog discovered what life is like as a partisan football in Washington. Just over a month ago, as the scandal first emerged, he was hailed by the committee for his investigatory work, specifically in revealing wasteful spending by the IRS. But George, a Republican appointed by George W. Bush in 2004, came under heavy attack from Democrats on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee on Thursday.  He was accused of politicizing his investigation by only focusing on whether the IRS was giving special scrutiny to right-wing groups seeking tax-exempt status and not liberal groups as well.

In his prepared remarks, George said his office did not receive documents indicating that the IRS might have targeted organizations using the word “progressive” in its name until July 9. He told the committee, “I am disturbed that these documents were not provided to our auditors at the outset and we are currently reviewing this issue.” That wasn’t enough for the committee’s Democrats.

Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee’s ranking member, went after George for intervening personally to keep confidential documents about the potential targeting of left wing groups that acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel wanted released. According to Cummings, this was the first time that an inspector general had ever taken such an action. George pushed back, noting “there’s a first time for everything” and that he wasn’t going to release “confidential taxpayer information . . . willy nilly.” The inspector general also admitted that he knew the IRS had generated BOLO (be on the lookout) lists for left wing groups seeking tax exempt status when he had testified previously but had not felt confident sharing that information with the committee at the time.

George was even more combative when he condemned Democrats for attacking career appointees on his staff, even getting into a debate with Gerry Connolly (D-VA) about whether the word “progressive” had inherent left-wing connotations. George claimed it did not, noting that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who left the White House in 1909, described himself as a progressive. 

The question remains whether the IRS targeted all political groups seeking tax-exempt status or simply ones that used phrases like “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their name. Earlier on Thursday, two IRS officials, Carter Hull and Elizabeth Hofacre, testified about their involvement in the agency’s review of applications by conservative organizations for tax exempt status. Both denied that the IRS’s review of these groups was politically motivated. 

George has promised to continue his audit and will likely appear before the committee in approximately a month to share his findings about whether the IRS targeted liberal groups for heightened scrutiny as well.  Regardless of what he finds, he will likely be a political football yet again; the only question is which party will be kicking him.