Last week the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on whether to impeach Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen for obstructing justice, providing false testimony to Congress, disregarding Congressional subpoenas, and stonewalling a congressional investigation.
Civil servants like Mr. Koskinen have historically been held to a higher standard than private citizens because they have fiduciary obligations to the public. Under Mr. Koskinen’s leadership, the IRS has breached these basic fiduciary responsibilities.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65 that the power to impeach a civil servant would protect the public against “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” At nearly every turn, Koskinen both abused his power and violated the public’s trust in the IRS.
For years, the IRS abused its far-reaching power to systematically target groups based on their political views—a fundamental violation of American citizens’ First Amendment rights.
In response to mass public outcry over this abuse of power, Congress called Lois Lerner, then-director of the IRS’s exempt-organizations unit, to explain her agency’s actions. Instead, she pled the Fifth Amendment.
On August 2, 2013, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a subpoena to Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, demanding that all communications sent or received by Lois Lerner be preserved. Meanwhile, multiple Congressional investigations into corruption at the IRS were taking place. President Obama said new leadership was needed that would “help restore confidence going forward.”
Amidst the controversy, John Koskinen was brought on as the new commissioner to clean house and reform the scandal-ridden agency.
Following Koskinen’s confirmation by the Senate, on February 14, 2014, the Oversight Committee reissued the original subpoena to him, reaffirming the request to preserve all of Lois Lerner’s correspondence. The IRS’s Chief Technology Office also issued a preservation order instructing employees not to destroy any emails or back-up tapes.
Yet, despite the Congressional subpoena and do-not-destroy order, the IRS inspector general found that the IRS employees in Martinsburg, West Virginia erased 422 backup tapes, destroying as many as 24,000 of Lois Lerner’s communications.
Rather than restore the American peoples’ confidence in the agency, Commissioner Koskinen instead stonewalled Congress’ investigation, provided false testimony under oath, disregarded multiple subpoenas and was complicit in allowing evidence to be destroyed.
And then Mr. Koskinen chose to deliberately keep Congress in the dark.
In February of 2014, the Commissioner’s counsel Kate Duval identified a gap in Lerner’s emails. She learned several days later that the gap was a result of a 2011 hard drive crash. Mr. Koskinen was made aware of these missing emails, yet he withheld the information from Congress for four months until June 13, 2014. He testified under oath four times before Congress during that 4-month period saying he would turn over all of Lerner’s emails, making no mention of the fact that the bulk of them had been “lost.”
Making matters worse, the IRS waited for a Friday news dump to admit in the seventh page of the third attachment to a letter sent to the Senate Finance Committee that many of Lerner’s emails had been lost.
Commissioner Koskinen again provided false testimony, claiming under oath that he had “confirmed” the information on the bulk of the back-up tapes was unrecoverable. Yet an inspector general found that of the 1,000 back-up tapes, approximately 700 hadn’t been erased and were in fact recoverable.
The inspector general also revealed that Koskinen’s staff hadn’t even bothered to search Lois Lerner’s email server, BlackBerry, or the Martinsburg, West Virginia facility housing the back-up tapes.
For years, the IRS Commissioner obstructed congressional oversight efforts, obfuscated justice, and provided false testimony under oath. That alone would meet the Federalist Papers’ standard for impeachment of a civil servant: “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” But the corruption at the IRS under Commissioner Koskinen’s leadership runs much deeper.
Since the revelation that the IRS systematically targeted conservatives for years based on their beliefs, the agency—under Koskinen’s watch—has done virtually nothing to reform internal protocol to ensure that every Americans’ First Amendment rights are protected.
A Government Accountability Office report found that no significant measures have been implemented to ensure that civil servants at the IRS don’t unlawfully target Americans based on their political or religious views.
Congress has the duty to hold Commissioner Koskinen accountable for failing to live up to his obligations of service to the American people. As even President Obama has said, we must help restore confidence going forward.