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A Year Into IRS Probe, Partisan Motives Still Prove Elusive


Now a fact check in the ongoing story about IRS treatment of conservative groups. For more than a year, two house committees have been investigating the IRS for stalling conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. House Republicans have alleged the Obama administration orchestrated the delays. But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, the evidence collected over the past year fails to support that allegation.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The chairman of House Oversight Committee is California Rep. Darrell Issa. He's walked a fine line in characterizing a possible conspiracy.


CONGRESSMAN DARRELL ISSA: We've never tried to tie things to the president, tie things to the cabinet officers.

OVERBY: That's Issa on CNN in June 2013 - the height of the investigation. He went on to say, his gut told him too many people knew what was going on.


ISSA: And at least, by some sort of convenient benign neglect, allowed it to go on through the election, allowed these groups - these conservative groups - these, if you will, not friends of the president - to be disenfranchised through an election.

OVERBY: The disenfranchisement alleged by Issa was an IRS process that stalled scores of conservative groups in their attempts to become tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. 501(c)(4)s can raise unlimited contributions and shield donors from disclosure. IRS workers in a branch office had put Tea Party and other conservative groups in a category that got many months of extra scrutiny. It was finally knowledge by their boss in Washington, Lois Lerner, one year later. But now more than a year after that happened, evidence of political chicanery is still elusive. Issa subpoenaed Lois Lerner in May 2013. She refused to answer questions.


LOIS LERNER: I know that some people will assume that I've done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic functions of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals, and that is the protection I am invoking today.

OVERBY: Issa's committee and the Ways and Means Committee obtained vast quantities of emails, memos and other documents. Two IRS employees were called to testify. They said, they saw no political influence. In fact, the 37 other people interviewed said that, too. They ranged from specialists in the branch office all the way up to IRS commissioners. So if it wasn't politics, what was it? Bad management, according to Russell George, the inspector general for tax administration. A prime example - Lerner didn't find out what that branch office was doing till months after it started. It was George's audit that uncovered the problems. In hearing after hearing, he refused to suggest a political motive. Ways and Means Dem. Ron Kind, among others, asked him directly, no evidence of bias or partisanship - is that right?


RUSSELL GEORGE: That is correct, sir. But we did find gross mismanagement in the overall.

CONGRESSMAN RON KIND: Right. That's clear in your report, too. Did you find any evidence that anyone outside of the IRS was involved in the development and the review?

GEORGE: Not at this time, sir.

KIND: Not the White House or treasury.

GEORGE: That's correct, sir.

OVERBY: This spring, the Oversight Committee decided to cite Lerner for contempt of Congress. Ways and Means urged the Justice Department to prosecute her. And the committees are pursuing an unknown number of emails belonging to Lerner. Documents from 2011 indicate they were lost when her computer hard drive failed. Republicans say, that looks intentional. Issa talked to the Heritage Foundation last week, still suggesting a White House connection.


ISSA: So far, Lois Lerner's as high as we've been able to substantiate. But we do certainly understand that the IRS commissioners knew or should have known about her activities and made trips to the White House. That's a big part of where we may never get those answers, but it certainly looks like Lois Lerner didn't act alone.

OVERBY: One of Issa's predecessors chairing the Oversight Committee is Tom Davis. He's a former Republican congressman, now a lobbyist. Davis says, the investigation veered off course when Lerner took the fifth. He says, the committee could have avoided that.

TOM DAVIS: Give her some kind of immunity so you can get to the bottom of the story. And we would've known earlier at the point that there were missing documents. You know, maybe been able to discover them faster.

OVERBY: Paul Light says, both committees are chasing the wrong question. He's a professor of public service at New York University and author of the book "Government By Investigation." He says, the right question is what's going on with those rules for 501(c)(4) social welfare groups?

PAUL LIGHT: What is the point there? And what has the IRS told applicants about how to qualify for (c)(4) status?

OVERBY: Instead, according to Light...

LIGHT: Basically, what happened, from my perspective, is that Lois Lerner's face went up on a dartboard.

OVERBY: He says, the investigation might turn out to be historically significant.

LIGHT: But it is not going to go down - at least, thus far - as an exemplar of how we keep a watchful eye and use investigations to make government work better.

OVERBY: He says, that's because the notion of making government work better fell out of fashion some decades ago. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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