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IRS emails indicate Tea Party groups could have faced 'criminal' charges, Republicans say

Lois Lerner Testifies.jpg

FILE: May 2013: IRS official Lois Lerner on Capitol Hill in Washington.AP

Republicans say newly released emails show that if the IRS' targeting of Tea Party groups hadn't been stopped, those organizations could have faced "trumped up criminal charges" -- since ex-IRS official Lois Lerner and the Justice Department were apparently coordinating just days before the scandal was exposed. 

The emails, obtained by Judicial Watch and first reported by TownHall.com, showed correspondence between Lerner and others at the IRS regarding the Justice Department's interest in investigating "political" groups. Based on the emails, the IRS seemed to be on board. 

House Republicans claimed after the emails were published that they were further proof of coordination among various agencies to target conservatives. 

"The release of new documents underscores the political nature of IRS Tea Party targeting and the extent to which supposed apolitical officials took direction from elected Democrats," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement.  "These e-mails are part of an overwhelming body of evidence that political pressure from prominent Democrats led to the targeting of Americans for their political beliefs." 

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said that if the targeting hadn't been stopped, "Eric Holder's politicized Justice Department would likely have been leveling trumped up criminal charges against Tea Party groups to intimidate them from exercising their Constitutional rights." 

At the least, the emails were another indication the targeting may have stretched deeper into the Obama administration. Lerner, the director of the agency’s Exempt Organizations division before retiring last year, initially said the targeting was limited to agents working in the IRS’ Cincinnati field office.

However, a series of inspector general and congressional probes since the scandal broke last year appear to show the targeting of mostly conservative-leaning groups seeking tax-exempt status was orchestrated in Washington.

In a May 2013 email, Lerner responded to a Justice Department inquiry about whether tax-exempt groups could be criminally prosecuted for lying about political activity.

"I got a call today from Richard Pilger Director Elections Crimes Branch at DOJ,” Lerner reportedly wrote to the office of Steven Miller, the agency’s acting director at the time. “He wanted to know who at IRS the DOJ folk s [sic] could talk to about Sen. Whitehouse idea at the hearing that DOJ could piece together false statement cases about applicants who 'lied' on their 1024s -- saying they weren't planning on doing political activity, and then turning around and making large visible political expenditures.

“DOJ is feeling like it needs to respond, but want to talk to the right folks at IRS to see whether there are impediments from our side and what, if any damage this might do to IRS programs. I told him that sounded like we might need several folks from IRS."

Nikole C. Flax, Miller’s chief of staff, responded: "I think we should do it -- also need to include CI [Criminal Investigation Division], which we can help coordinate. Also, we need to reach out to FEC. Does it make sense to consider including them in this or keep it separate?" 

Senior Justice Department officials, though, told Fox News the accusations surrounding these emails are "conflating two separate issues." 

They said the phone call between Lerner and Pilger was in reference to a question posed during a Senate committee hearing in April 2013 by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who was asking about groups who already enjoyed tax-exempt status but in his estimation may have been lying when they said they did not engage in political activities. 

DOJ officials also point out that Pilger is, and was not, running the IRS investigation, and that the call or follow-up emails did not lead to any follow-up investigation of any of the groups Whitehouse was asking about. 

The administration at the highest level denied the targeting, from 2010 through the 2012 presidential election cycle, was illegal or politically motivated.

President Obama told Fox News in February there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in connection with the targeting.

And last week, emails obtained by the GOP-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform show the office of the committee's top-ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, contacted the IRS in January 2013 about True the Vote, one of the conservative groups that was targeted.

A Lerner staffer in response sent the group’s related 990 IRS forms to Cummings and his staff.

In another email, Lerner discussed with agency staffers the purpose of an upcoming, April 9 2013, hearing that also suggests the targeting went beyond the IRS.

“There are several groups of folks from the [Federal Election Commission] world that are pushing tax fraud prosecution for c4s who report they are not conducting political activity when they are (or these folks think they are)," she wrote.

“One is my ex-boss Larry Noble (former General Counsel at the FEC), who is now president of Americans for Campaign Reform. This is their latest push to shut these down. One IRS prosecution would make an impact and they wouldn't feel so comfortable doing the stuff. So, don't be fooled about how this is being articulated -- it is ALL about 501(c)(4) orgs and political activity."