Top Treasury lawyer: I had no knowledge of IRS Tea Party targeting

(FILES)The US Treasury Department is seen in this October 29, 2008 file photo in Washington, DC. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES)The US Treasury Department is seen in this October 29, 2008 file photo in Washington, DC. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of a damning internal report that blamed lax management at the Internal Revenue Service for an effort to target Tea Party groups, lawmakers are probing whether Obama administration political appointees at the Treasury Department knew about the targeting while it was going on. But one key official from the time says he had no idea.

The IG report refers to an August 2011 meeting at which, it says, the IRS general counsel was briefed on the targeting. The New York Times adds:

Under I.R.S. rules, the agency’s chief counsel, William J. Wilkins, reports to the Treasury Department’s general counsel, and investigators want to determine if Mr. Wilkins took the issue out of the independent I.R.S. to other parts of the Obama administration.

But the IRS said in a statement to msnbc that Wilkins did not attend the August 2011 meeting and did not discuss the issue with the Treasury General Counsel:

IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins did not participate in any Aug. 4, 2011 meeting relating to tax-exempt applications.  An August 4, 2011 discussion of 501(c)(4) criteria to be used in case reviews involved staff attorneys several layers below Wilkins.  The IRS Office of Chief Counsel has approximately 1600 attorneys.  Wilkins is not involved in the 501(c)(4) application process.  He did not discuss 501(c)(4) applications with the Treasury General Counsel. Wilkins did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year.

George Madison, who at the time served as Treasury general counsel, also told msnbc the issue was never brought to him at the time. “I became aware of this issue from the current news reports around the IG’s report,” Madison, who stepped down in June 2012, said in a phone interview.

Nor is it likely that the issue would have been brought to other parts of Treasury proper. The IRS is an agency within the Treasury Department, but the law states that it reports to Treasury only on tax policy issues, not on issues relating to individual tax returns or procedures for vetting applications. That’s in order to ensure the confidentiality of individual returns.

Meanwhile, the scandal continued to reverberate in Washington. A day after the Justice Department began a criminal investigation into the episode, Speaker John Boehner called for those responsible to be jailed.

“My question isn’t about who is going to resign,” Boehner told reporters at a briefing Wednesday morning. “My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon that President Obama is speaking with Treasury Department officials today.

Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday afternoon: ”Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable.”

All 45 Republican senators signed a letter to President Obama asserting that the targeting was “consistent with a broader pattern of intimidation by arms of your administration to silence political dissent,” and calling on the president to provide investigators with “full cooperation.”

Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means committee, told msnbc’s Chuck Todd that Steven Miller and Lois Lerner, respectively the IRS’s acting commissioner and the head of its Exempt Organizations division, should resign.

Asked at the Wednesday briefing whether Obama retains confidence in Miller, Carney evaded the question, saying he wasn’t ”going to get into personnel matters.”

Miller is scheduled to testify Friday before the House Ways and Means committee.

IRS officials have blamed the targeting—in which agents used keyword searches for terms like “Tea Party,” “Patriot,” and “9/12” in order to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny when they applied for nonprofit status—on low-level employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office.

At a meeting on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Miller blamed the episode on two  employees who he said went “off the reservation,” CNN reported.

But that has done little to quell the furor. “We are not satisfied that people higher up in the IRS and outside did not know about what was going on there,” Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement.

Lerner and Miller, the latter of whom was then the IRS deputy commissioner, were asked on several occasions last year by members of Congress whether such targeting had occurred but did not mention it, despite having been made aware of the effort.

Issa on Tuesday accused Lerner of providing false or misleading information about the issue on four separate occasions.