(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the investigators from a bipartisan group that interviewed employees of the Cincinnati Internal Revenue Service office last week, said Sunday he highly suspects the IRS targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups was directed from Washington.
"My gut tells me that too many people knew this wrongdoing was going on before the election, and at least by some sort of convenient, benign neglect, allowed it to go on through the election," Issa, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"I'm not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening," said Issa, and then added, "This is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it."
A Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, blasted Issa after the CNN aired the interview. Cummings accused Issa of "lobbing unsubstantiated conclusions on national television for political reasons."
"So far, no witnesses who have appeared before the committee have identified any IRS official in Washington, D.C. who directed employees in Cincinnati to use 'tea party' or similar terms to screen applicants for extra scrutiny," Reuters quoted Cummings as saying.
However, according to the transcript excerpts of the interviews the investigators held last week, a low-level IRS employee said he believes Tea Party scrutiny "emanated from Washington," Reuters reported. And a more senior IRS employee dealing with the Tea Party portfolio told the investigators there was "micromanagement" from the exempt-organization office in Washington.
Lois G. Lerner, the director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS, told reporters last month that several organizations carrying the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their exemption applications were singled out by IRS agents for additional reviews between 2010 and 2012.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has claimed the IRS action was not politically motivated and the Administration wasn't aware of the issue until Lerner's admission.
Lerner, who administers and enforces the tax laws that apply to organizations recognized as exempt from tax, has claimed the move was not political, and apologized for "mistakes" and lack of "good judgment" by low-level employees. "Sometimes people do things because they don't understand the rules or don't think about it."
Meanwhile, it has been learnt that the IRS spent excessively on conferences around the time.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has said in its briefings to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that IRS spent around $50 million on 225 conferences between 2010 and 2012, Issa's committee said Sunday.
The committee plans to hold a hearing this week to discuss the report, and will likely focus on a conference held in Anaheim, Calif., in August 2010 that cost $4 million. IRS employees were given presidential suites at hotels, CNN said.
"The culture of the federal workforce is one where I don't think you can underestimate that if you don't keep reminding the voters – but also the federal workers – that we're watching, this will happen again," Issa said Sunday.
House Speaker John Boehner has said the IRS targeting reflects "some of the most shameful abuses of government powers" in the last century.