A top Republican lawmaker on Friday subpoenaed the Treasury Department for documents pertaining to the IRS targeting scandal, after accusing the head of the tax-collection agency of obstructing congressional investigations.
During a tense hearing on Capitol Hill held shortly before lawmakers headed out for summer recess, acting IRS chief Danny Werfel weathered tough questioning from Republicans including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Issa claimed the IRS has been slow to produce documents, and that the documents it does produce are so thoroughly blacked out, they are useless to investigators.
"When you eliminate search terms unilaterally you are obstructing us by limiting the scope of discovery. Do you understand that, Mr. Werfel?" Issa said, complaining that the IRS had narrowed the date range for the requested documents.
Though Werfel repeatedly denied that his agency was being uncooperative, Issa subsequently issued a statement saying he had issued a subpoena to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
A Treasury spokesman said the department has received the subpoena and is "committed" to cooperating with the committee's review.
The committee is trying to force the department to hand over a series of documents pertaining to the program in which IRS agents subjected Tea Party and other conservative groups to additional scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status. Issa is asking for "all communications" to and from embattled IRS agent Lois Lerner, the first IRS official to publicly acknowledge the program, as well as other high-level personnel including White House appointee William Wilkins.
"While the Committee is willing to work with the IRS to guide the agency in responding to oversight requests, it is patently unacceptable for the IRS to unilaterally revise the scope or search terms used to identify responsive material," Issa wrote.
Issa and other Republicans have been evidently agitated by White House attempts to label the IRS controversy as a "phony scandal." Issa referenced this rhetoric in his letter to Lew, accusing the administration of trying to "thwart" congressional oversight.
Tensions boiled over in the hearing room.
"You are slow-rolling us," Issa told Werfel in a heated exchange. "There are important facts to get out, and you are obstructing."
"That is not true," Werfel fired back.
Werfel said that by the end of the day Friday, the IRS will have given more than 16,000 pages of documents to Issa's committee and more than 70,000 pages to Congress as a whole. Werfel said documents are blacked out to protect confidential taxpayer information.
Issa's committee does not have legal authority to receive confidential taxpayer information. In Congress, that authority is reserved for the chairmen of the two tax-writing committees, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance, and their designated staff.
Werfel said the two tax-writing committees are receiving full documents. However, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, has also complained that the IRS is producing documents too slowly.
Werfel rejected the accusation that he's limited the scope of the document search.
"We are prioritizing searches in order to get you more documents more quickly and that's having an impact," he said.
He said: "The notion that we're impeding or obstructing is completely false. In fact the opposite is true. We are involved in a thorough comprehensive effort to fully cooperate with all the congressional committees that are asking questions, asking for witnesses, asking for documents, and there's substantial facts and evidence that demonstrate our full cooperation."
More than 100 IRS employees are working to produce documents for Congress, including 70 lawyers who are reviewing documents full time, Werfel said.
In addition, 19 employees have been made available for interviews by congressional investigators, and IRS officials have appeared at 15 congressional hearings since the scandal broke, Werfel said. He also said the agency has offered to make Wilkins available for meetings with committee members.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.