New IRS Commissioner Gives Shaky Answers on Scandal

Danny Werfel and J. Russell George

Given all of the criticism and scrutiny the Internal Revenue Service is facing from both Congress and the American people over its targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups, one would think that agency officials would be digging deeper in trying to figure out who was responsible. But that hasn’t happened, at least not to this point.

On Monday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government held a hearing on the scandal that has plagued the IRS. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) asked acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel about accountability in the agency and if anyone had asked employees in the Cincinnati office who was responsible.

During his first round of questioning, Rep. Graves asked Werfel who had been held accountable. Werfel pointed to the two resignations — then-acting Commissioner Steven Miller and Tax Exempt Division chief Joseph Grant — that have happened since the scandal became public knowledge.

“So, a resignation is accountability? Is that what you’re telling the American people?” asked Graves. As Werfel began to answer, Graves cut him off to as inquired about Lois Lerner, the embattled director of the IRS’s Tax Exempt Division. “Is Lois Lerner being on administrative leave, is that accountability? Is Lois Lerner still being paid today?”

“She is,” responded Werfel.

“Is that your definition of accountability?” Graves shot back.

Werfel was frustrated by the questions, which highlighted the inadequate response to the scandal. “Well, if you’d let me, if you’d indulge me just to answer the question again,” said Werfel before being interrupted by Graves, who said that he question was easy to answer.

“There’s two stages to accountability here. The first stage is based on the facts we have now, to determine who can no longer hold a position of trust with the IRS,” replied Werfel. “And, the second stage, which I know is where you’re going, is to determine whether there was any underlying malfeasance or issues that would warrant dismissal. We’re going to follow the facts where they take us.”

Graves quickly seized on the latter comments. “If you don’t know there was underlying malfeasance, then why was somebody asked to resign?” Werfel said that resignations were sought out because the administration believed that the people in power at the IRS “could no longer hold as a position of management oversight.” Graves noted in his follow up question that the resignations were sought to restore public trust, public perception or even for political purposes.

While Werfel rejected that assertion, consider that Miller wasn’t even the IRS Commissioner at the agency’s targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups took place. He’d only been in office since November 2012. He knew about the targeting, but wasn’t around when it happened. He was, as Graves asserted, a scapegoat.

Graves then asked Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George if he’d asked anyone in the Cincinnati office about who ordered the targeting. George explained that his office did ask that question, but noted that “no one would acknowledge who, if anyone, provided that direction.” It’s important to note that the employees at the Cincinnati office were not questioned under oath and it was an audit, not an actual investigation.

He would later pose that same question to Werfel, who replied, “Not at this time. I have not asked those questions yet.” Graves would later respond that “one way to be helpful would be to go to Cincinnati and find out who ordered them to carry out these targets.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) provided excerpts of transcripts to CNN indicating that the orders to target Tea Party and conservative groups came from the Tax Exempt office in Washington.

Granted, Werfel has only been at his post for a few weeks, but he keeps talking about restoring the public’s trust in the IRS and the need to uncover all the facts of this scandal. However, it’s not at all clear that he is really taking appropriate steps to do so. As Graves said, the best way to do that would be to have conversations with agency employees in Cincinnati, find out who exactly is responsible, and enact some real measure of accountability.

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