"We're Trying to Be Methodical About Getting to the Facts Here"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 23 2013 4:14 PM

"We're Trying to Be Methodical About Getting to the Facts Here"

Eric Cantor heads onto CNBC and gets a friendly quiz about the IRS story. Is he on board with the White House's version of events? No, he is not.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"If you’ve got an ongoing IG investigation or audit and there comes to you information about this type of behavior where you are discriminating against political opponents," says Cantor. "I do not accept the fact that the White House says we couldn't interfere with that audit or with that investigation. That’s not true. They knew that kind of activity was going on. That was clearly a point at which they should have gone in and said 'Don't do that anymore.'"

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And here we have an example of the confusion and doubt creeping into this story -- or maybe, an example of the usefulness of timelines. The White House was not, apparently, informed of the IG report until April 24, 2013, when WH Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler got "a thumbnail sketch" of the findings. Reummler and the Chief of Staff "agreed that it would be best not to share it with President Obama until the independent audit was completed and made public, in part to protect him from even the appearance of trying to influence an investigation."

Scandalous! But it happened long after the IRS stopped sending out the creepy letters, and after the BOLO document "targeting the Tea Party" was rewritten. According to the IG report, the letters went out in January 2012. The negative media coverage started in February. On February 29, "the Director, EO, stopped any more additional information request letters from being issued on advocacy cases until new guidance was provided to the Determinations Unit." On May 17,

The Director, Rulings and Agreements, issued a memorandum outlining new procedures for updating the BOLO listing. The BOLO listing criteria were updated again. New criteria reads: “501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit).”

That was 11 months before Ruemmler got the "thumbnail sketch." In the intervening months, appointed IRS commissioner Dennis Shulman resigned. By every account, the dark era of "targeting" was long over.

Now, might a smarter government have tackled the problem sooner? Oh, yes. Some reporters were breaking news about the IRS targeting in February 2012. Soon thereafter, Darrell Issa urged the IG to look into this. "his is one of those things where it's been, in a sense, an open secret," said Issa last week, "but you don't accuse the IRS until you've had a nonpartisan, deep look."

UPDATE: From Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.

As soon as questions were raised or an investigation known, IRS and Administration leaders could have and should have reiterated the nonpartisan operating principles to employees, and perhaps taken further steps, to ensure this political targeting of American taxpayers had ceased and would not happen ever again. The White House continues to say that an investigation ties their hands completely, and that simply is not true.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.