Will IRS Officials Tell Congress What It Wants to Know?

Earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service disclosed that it had singled out groups whose names contained words like “Tea Party” or “patriot” for additional examination before deciding whether to grant tax-exempt status. The subsequent controversy has already cast a dark shadow across the second term of President Barack Obama and made the issue of tax reform all the more pressing.

But in typical government fashion, the investigation is now caught up in hours of hearings before House of Representative’s Ways and Means Committee and its Oversight and Government Reform panel. Congressional investigators plan to interview four Internal Revenue Service employees — John Shafer, Gary Muthert, Liz Hofacre and Joseph Herr — who work in the Cincinnati office that handles applications for tax-exemption status. Already, the House Oversight panel has questioned Holly Paz, a fifth IRS employee, according to Ali Ahad, a spokesman for California Republican Representative Darrell Issa.

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Altogether, four congressional committees and the U.S. Department of Justice have began investigations into the actions of the IRS.

Three IRS officials have left their jobs as a result of the controversy so far; Steven Miller, the former acting commissioner, was forced out of that position, and Joseph Grant, who oversaw tax-exempt groups and government bodies, announced his retirement eight days after he was promoted to that position. However, the probe has still not revealed which IRS official decided to single out the groups applying for tax-exempt status based on their names alone.

Already, Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division Lois Lerner has said the IRS was “apologetic” for what she termed “absolutely inappropriate” actions, asserting that the targeting had not been centrally planned, but, rather conducted by lower-level employees. Yet, it has been shown that Lerner was informed of the targeting at a June 2011 meeting. On May 22, she made a short statement to Issa’s panel, denying any guilt, but she refused to testify. As of May 23, she was placed on paid administrative leave.

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The Ways and Means panel will hold a hearing on June 4.

Some legislators are also concerned that the agency’s inappropriate practices extend beyond its targeting of conservative groups. Representative Sam Graves, chairman of the House Small Business Committee, sent a letter to the IRS on Friday, inquiring about the agency’s practices for determining which small businesses to audit. While the Missouri Republican did not accuse the IRS of auditing small business for political reasons, he still wrote, according to Bloomberg that “these investigations have only raised more questions as to the extent these practices may have extended beyond conservative groups.”

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