The who-knew-what-when game and the IRS controversy

The who-knew-what-when game and the IRS controversy
The who-knew-what-when game and the IRS controversy
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Over the past few days, one of the areas of interest in the IRS controversy is which officials knew about the Inspector General’s investigation and when. The idea, apparently, is to identify who was aware of the potential problems at the agency before the controversy rose to the public’s attention.

And why would that matter? In a political context, the point is to understand who, outside of the IRS, was aware of problems within the tax agency, with Obama administration critics suggesting greater awareness translates into a broader controversy.

With that in mind, we learned Friday that some officials at the Treasury Department were aware of the Inspector General’s probe last year, which proves, well, not much. Officials being made aware of an IG investigation is routine; what matters is what the IG discovers. Indeed, it’s a good thing when officials higher up the food chain take a hands-off attitude – rather than intervene during an investigation – and wait for the findings.

But wait, Obama’s critics say, this is incomplete. What about notifying Congress? If the administration knew an IG investigation was underway, why not make lawmakers aware of this, at the time, as part of routine oversight? In this case, the administration did notify Congress last year.

The Treasury inspector general for tax administration also sent a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa in July 2012 saying it would audit the agency.

This is not at all convenient for those eager to characterize this as a conspiracy. Last July, in the middle of the presidential election, the administration told House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) about an investigation into the IRS’s potential mishandling of applications for tax-exempt status.

And what did Issa do when he learned about this? Not a thing – he decided to wait for the IG’s report itself.

In other words, when it comes to presenting a defense, the White House has an apparent ally in Darrell Issa, ostensibly one of the president’s fiercest critics.

Indeed, Ryan Grim added this gem over the weekend.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said earlier this week in a little-noticed interview that he knew “approximately” what the IRS inspector general would report about selective targeting of conservative groups, but that it wasn’t appropriate to “accuse the IRS until you’ve had a nonpartisan, deep look.”

The comments back up the White House argument that administration officials did not know enough about the investigation to condemn the IRS until the IG completed his work recently. A Treasury Department official, Neal Wolin, was informed that the IG was looking into the situation this past summer, a revelation the media and GOP have seized on to suggest the White House may have covered up the scandal in the midst of a campaign.

Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“I know approximately what’s in it,” Issa told Bloomberg Businessweek on Monday when asked if he knew what would be in the report. “I knew what was approximately in it when we made the allegations about a year ago. This is one of those things where it’s been, in a sense, an open secret, but you don’t accuse the IRS until you’ve had a nonpartisan, deep look. That’s what the IG has done. That’s why the IGs in fact exist within government, is to find this kind of waste and fraud and abuse of power.”

And when the IG report did come out last week, it too deflated conspiracy theorists’ hopes – there was no conspiracy; there was no White House pressure; there were no Nixonian tactics.

There can be no doubt that the IRS was a clumsy, messy bureaucracy that struggled badly to deal with excessive paperwork and ambiguous tax laws, but those looking for a genuine political scandal will likely continue to be disappointed.