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IRS Chief Slams Witch Hunt Over Targeting Scandal

WASHINGTON (CN) - Giving his long-awaited defense to impeachment attempts Wednesday, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said he would not reward the exaggerations of House Republicans by stepping down.

"If I get, kind of, forced out, then it's more likely that someone will say, 'Let's do that again,'" Koskinen told reporters after a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Koskinen insisted he had not purposefully misled Congress in its investigation into the political-targeting scandal that rocked the agency in 2013.

Resigning, the commissioner said, would set the precedent that lawmakers could use false accusations to force out unwanted officials simply by threatening impeachment or censure.

All that the commissioner allowed was that he could have been quicker in alerting lawmakers about the hard-drive crash that prevented the agency from recovering certain emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS director of exempt organizations.

"I have said that in retrospect, if I had it to do over again, in April, I would have contacted and advised Congress immediately," Koskinen told the committee. "The delay didn't change any investigation, but I can understand the aggravation it caused in some areas."

Impeachment is too harsh a punishment for so minor an oversight, the commissioner said repeatedly.

"It would create disincentives for many good people to serve, and it would slow the pace of reform and progress at the IRS," Koskinen told the committee.

Koskinen denied that an order from the top of the agency caused the destruction of some of Lerner's emails from the time of the alleged targeting.

Calling it a simple mistake, Koskinen noted that he had even sent around a reminder to preserve the documents.

Republicans have claimed the IRS unduly scrutinized political groups with conservative buzzwords in their names to flood the groups with burdensome paperwork when they sough tax-exempt status. Koskinen became commissioner after these allegations surfaced.

Wednesday's hearing was the third the House Judiciary Committee has held related to Koskinen's impeachment, though none have been formal impeachment proceedings.

At the first, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., presented their case against Koskinen. At the second, legal experts told the committee they were unsure whether the allegations against the commissioner were impeachable.

Wednesday's hearing was scheduled after Republican leaders reached an agreement to delay a vote on impeachment proceedings last week.

While the more conservative, Tea Party wing of the Republican Party in the House has been foaming at the mouth for a chance to bring Koskinen down, Republican leadership has been reluctant to do so in a potentially close election year.

Since Koskinen was not at the IRS when the alleged targeting took place, Republicans accuse him of overseeing a cover-up and obstructing congressional investigations into the scandal. They say Koskinen knew about Lerner's missing emails in February, but waited until June 2014 to notify Congress about that.

Koskinen insists that he did not know until April that the emails were unrecoverable.

Republicans also hold up as an example of Koskinen's obstruction an incident in which agency employees erased 422 backup tapes that contained Lerner's emails, despite a congressional subpoena and a protection order.

At the hearing Wednesday morning, Republicans grilled Koskinen on the destruction of these backup tapes. The commissioner chalked the deletion up to "honest mistakes" by two workers in a West Virginia office.


But Republicans seemed to have grown tired of this explanation.

"The old 'midnight-shift guys in Martinsburg' excuse," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. "OK, OK."

Koskinen later insisted to Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., that he did not intentionally mislead lawmakers when he told Congress no emails had been erased.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have testified differently," Koskinen said. "But at the time I testified honestly on what I knew and what I had been told."

Republicans have been outraged by both the targeting scandal and their perception that the agency has not taken their attempts to investigate it seriously.

Falling on a refrain common in the hearings on the targeting scandal, Republicans expressed frustration that the IRS would not hesitate to bring the hammer down on regular people who acted as Koskinen had during an investigation.

"You know how to dish it out, but you don't know how to take it," Chaffetz said. "And so when we issue a subpoena, we expect you to comply with it. And when you destroy documents that are under subpoena, somebody has got to be held accountable for that. And that starts with you. You provided false testimony to this committee. You provided false testimony to the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. And you should be held accountable for that."

Democrats have stood by the IRS commissioner throughout the Republican investigations, calling Republican efforts to take him down a politically motivated, partisan, witch hunt.

At Wednesday's hearing Democrats said Republicans have bungled the proceedings against Koskinen by failing to follow the regular process of impeachment, which would provide Koskinen with a right to counsel and to bring new evidence.

They also said the Republican investigations have yielded little, if any substantive information to bring such serious charges.

"The Oversight Committee has conducted over 50 transcribed interviews and claims that those interviews were key in forming the charges against you," Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said at the hearing. "Mr. Commissioner, have you asked to review these transcripts?"

Koskinen said he had asked to review the transcripts, leading Conyers to ask if he thought those transcripts would help him defend himself against Republicans' claims.

"If there were any evidence there that I've actually indicated or told anyone to impede the operation of the Congress, destroy or mislead the Congress, I assume someone would have already quoted it," Koskinen replied.

Instead of focusing on Republican allegations against Koskinen, many Democrats used their time for questions to ask the commissioner about Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax returns and recent reports that the Republican presidential nominee used his foundation to buy personal items and to settle lawsuits.

Koskinen generally responded to the questions by saying he couldn't talk about individual cases, especially when hypotheticals began to "resemble" individual cases.

"You're right, we can't learn everything there is to learn about his finances from his tax returns, but it sure would be an important start for the American people, and I appreciate your being here to help clear some of that up," Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said at the hearing.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., lamented that the committee was using time considering impeaching Koskinen rather than to hold hearings on police brutality or other issues facing the country.

"We keep grandstanding while America is burning," Richmond said. "There are some people who would rather talk about Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem than would talk about people losing their lives by the hands of law enforcement."

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