Lawmakers hammered IRS Commissioner John Koskinen at a hearing Tuesday over what one senator called “a culture of discrimination” at the agency, and questioned whether anyone is being held accountable for the targeting scandal after the Justice Department declined to pursue a criminal case.
The Senate Finance Committee hearing was held after the DOJ concluded Friday there was no basis for criminal charges against ex-IRS official Lois Lerner – the employee at the center of the alleged targeting of Tea Party groups ahead of the 2010 and 2012 elections – or any other IRS officials.
Criticism of the agency came from both Democrats and Republicans, with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., calling the deletion of tapes containing Lois Lerner’s emails “completely unacceptable and inexcusable.” However, Republicans were more focused on the IRS' former practice of subjecting conservative groups to additional scrutiny as they sought tax-exempt status.
“We’re here today because there was a culture of discrimination in the agency that has the power of intimidation that no other agency in the federal government has, and it used that power of intimidation against conservative organizations and then there was a cover-up of that intimidation,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said.
Republicans asked Koskinen how taxpayers could be expected to trust the IRS considering how the agency handled the controversy internally.
“How can taxpayers applying for tax-exempt status feel confident they will be treated fairly when individuals who oversaw the targeting remain in place, were never disciplined and in some instances were even promoted?” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked.
Koskinen noted that the top five levels in the IRS chain of command have been replaced – although when pressed he would not confirm publicly if they had been let go or if they had been allowed to retire with full benefits -- and reminded Grassley that no political bias or targeting had been found by the Justice Department.
“[The Justice Department] interviewed 100 employees and found no evidence that any employee acted with regard to political bias or discrimination,” Koskinen said, although he did say that the delays in dealing with tax-exempt requests should not have happened and were unacceptable.
Republicans were incredulous.
“It is without question a situation where politics were involved,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said to Koskinen.
“I admire your tenacity and I admire your position. There’s a great organization you ought to take part of here in Washington – it’s called The Flat Earth Society with regards to whether there were any politics in this or not,” Roberts said.
Wyden however, backed Koskinen on the question of political targeting, noting also that the inspector general audit and bipartisan investigators found “zero evidence of targeting or political bias.”
“I don’t care what the left says about it, we all know there was political bias. We all find fault with Lois Lerner and we should find fault with her,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.
On the subject of the deletion of backup tapes containing Lerner’s emails, Koskinen said the agency is upgrading its systems and processes in dealing with retention requests so that the storage and access of records would be easier and cheaper in the future.
“We shouldn’t have to spend $20 million in a year responding to legitimate congressional inquiries for information,” Koskinen said.