WASHINGTON (CN) – Congressional Republicans heated up their efforts Tuesday to impeach the commissioner of the IRS over revelations that auditors targeted right-wing groups.
While adamant that the Judiciary Committee hearing was not an impeachment proceeding, Republicans repeatedly called this morning for the House to consider doing just that.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., laid out the case against IRS commissioner John Koskinen during testimony to the committee.
They said Koskinen should be impeached for obstructing congressional investigations into claims that the IRS paid closer attention if it received an application for tax-exempt status from a conservative group.
“We’re here today because Mr. Koskinen provided false testimony, he failed to comply with a duly issued subpoena and when he knew there was a problem he failed to properly inform Congress in a timely manner,” Chaffetz said.
Though the committee had invited Koskinen to testify, the commissioner informed it Monday he would not be in attendance.
Chaffetz began his testimony today with a 10-minute video retracing the timeline of the five-year IRS targeting scandal, using news clips and segments from past hearings, paired with a voiceover and an animated chart.
Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said Koskinen intentionally ignored evidence about the targeting scandal and did not prevent tapes and records that would have helped the investigation from being destroyed.
He specifically said Koskinen, who came out of retirement to join the IRS in 2013 in the wake of the scandal, “lied” to Congress about the destruction of the hard drive used by former IRS Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner, which crashed in 2011.
While the IRS did not reveal to Congress until June that some emails from Lerner were missing, Koskinen told Congress he knew in February about the gap. He later told the House Ways and Means Committee no emails had been destroyed and that the agency had “gone to great lengths” to restore Lerners emails, even though it didn’t find backup tapes the inspector general turned up in 15 days, Chaffetz said.
“At best this is gross negligence, “Chaffetz told the committee.
Republicans on the committee joined Chaffetz in railing against Koskinen and advocating for Congress to take action to remove him from office.
“I mean, for goodness sakes, this is certainly a breach of public trust, dereliction of duty and negligence in gross, gross form,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said at the hearing.
Some exchanges between Chaffetz and Democrats on the committee grew heated at times. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., accused Chaffetz of dodging his questions about whether the Department of Justice and other agencies investigated the IRS scandal only to find no criminal intent.
Other Democrats criticized Republicans for even allowing the hearing and talk of impeachment to come up during a time when Congress has a lot of work to do and little time to get it done.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., suggested Republicans were on a partisan hunt to claim victims in the targeting scandal without considering the consequences such an action could have.
When he asked Chaffetz if Congress was being “a little heavy-handed on this matter,” the Utah Republican disagreed.
“I can understand and respect that we may disagree on the remedy, but I think what we would find is that in fact we were lied to in Congress,” Chaffetz said.
Conyers stood his ground, however, and said Republicans are not focused exclusively on getting justice.
“There seems to be an anti-IRS-commissioner environment here that makes it very difficult for me to go forward without an investigation of all that has been said this morning,” Conyers said.
Attacks on the hearing also came from outside the room.
Just before the hearing started, Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who serves as the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee with Chaffetz, sent out an op-ed he wrote for The Hill questioning why Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Russell George was not invited to testify at the hearing.
Cummings suggested Republicans avoided inviting George because his findings did not support their case.
“These Republicans tried to impeach the commissioner, accusing him of obstructing their partisan investigation and destroying emails from IRS employees that Republicans claim were the smoking gun they were hunting for,” Cummings wrote. “The problem is that the same inspector general, Mr. George, investigated these claims as well, and he found nothing to substantiate them either.”
While Republicans were keenly interested in the findings Chaffetz presented, Koskinen’s absence from the opulent, high-ceilinged room on Capitol Hill hung over the proceedings Tuesday.
In declining the invitation to attend today’s hearing, Koskinen had said his recent travel to China to discuss “international tax avoidance issues,” coupled with preparations for another hearing set for Wednesday, left him with little time to dive into the “wide-ranging and complex discussion” that Chaffetz envisioned.
Koskinen attached a seven-page opening statement in his letter Monday to the House Judiciary Committee, detailing why the claims against him “lack merit” and encouraging the committee to consider the implications of advancing virtually unprecedented impeachment proceedings against a member of the executive branch.
“If the committee were to go forward and pursue impeachment in this instance, especially in the light of the utter lack of support for the allegations, it would set an unfortunate precedent, diminishing the ability of the Federal government to attract experienced, dedicated people to positions of leadership,” Koskinen wrote.
Responding directly to the four proposed articles of impeachment against him, Koskinen said he oversaw a comprehensive investigation that cost $20 million and more than 160,000 man-hours to complete. Still, he admitted to errors and blind spots in the investigation such as the deletion of 422 disaster-recovery tapes in Martinsburg, W.Va., and the late discovery of the hard drive crash that lost some of Lerner’s emails.
Conyers attempted to add Koskinen’s statement to the record at the beginning of the hearing, but Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., objected to its entry, calling the commissioner’s absence “Lois Lerner revisited.”
Republicans repeatedly criticized Koskinen for not showing up to the hearing, to which he was invited but not subpoenaed.
“His nonattendance today I think speaks volumes,” Chaffetz told reporters after the hearing. “He can’t answer these questions. They are matters of fact and they’re indefensible.”
Republicans, especially those who rode into Congress with the Tea Party waves in 2010 and 2012, have set their sights on the IRS ever since a report from the inspector general’s office published in May 2013 found the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to tag conservative groups seeking tax exemptions.
Republicans maintain the IRS did so to make it more difficult for conservative groups to receive tax-exempt status by flooding them with heaps of paperwork and information requests that delayed their applications.
They specifically point to the 2011 crash of Lerner’s hard drive and its subsequent destruction, the deletion of the tapes in West Virginia and Lerner’s refusal to testify before Congress as evidence of the obstruction.
On Monday, the conservative-leaning Cause of Action Institute filed a federal complaint against Koskinen over the failure of the IRS to maintain instant messages and texts related to the targeting scandal.
In addition to the Department of Justice, and multiple committees in both the House and the Senate opened investigations into the IRS targeting scandal.
Lerner, who was placed on administrative leave three years ago Monday, invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify before the House Oversight Committee and the House held her in contempt on May 7, 2014.
Democrats meanwhile have called the investigation a partisan witch hunt and say all of the inquiries have not turned up any signs that the IRS targeted Tea Party groups for purely political reasons or that Koskinen obstructed justice.
While Tuesday’s hearing revealed this deep partisan divide on the scandal, Chaffetz called for unity in holding federal employees accountable for their actions.
“It really should be partisan,” Chaffetz told reporters after the hearing. “You can’t destroy some documents. You can’t mislead Congress. You can’t lie to Congress.”
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