New IRS Scandal: Lois Lerner Thought About Doing Something, Then Didn’t Do It

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 25 2014 5:46 PM

New IRS Scandal: Lois Lerner Thought About Doing Something, Then Didn’t Do It

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So about those missing emails...

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Like many people who were supposed to be finishing something, I wasted a little time on Facebook today, and came across a Republican friend's reaction to a new break in the IRS scandal. This, he said, was the story "going nuclear"—this discovery by the Ways and Means Committee that there was a "push to audit Senator Chuck Grassley."

Today, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) announced the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative individuals includes a sitting United States Senator.  According to emails reviewed by the Committee under its Section 6103 authority, which allows the Committee to review confidential taxpayer information, Lois Lerner sought to have Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) referred for IRS examination. 
 
“We have seen a lot of unbelievable things in this investigation, but the fact that Lois Lerner attempted to initiate an apparently baseless IRS examination against a sitting Republican United States Senator is shocking,” said Camp.  “At every turn, Lerner was using the IRS as a tool for political purposes in defiance of taxpayer rights."
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That certainly sounds bad, but given that the news of the IRS "losing" years of Lerner emails had effectively restarted the scandal, I'm not sure this strange and less-than-it-seems story amounts to Chernobyl. What did Lerner actually do? The timeline is provided by Ways and Means in the form of an email that includes previous emails in a string. I'll just post them chronologically. In the first email, from Dec. 3, 2012, we see a sort of garbled reminder that Lerner should attend a [redacted] event.

The next morning, Lerner asks Matthew Giuliano, an attorney who was at the time a manager at the IRS, if the invitation was kosher.

Giuliano quickly responds. (The time stamps don't match up here, but this appears as a response to the above email.)

To which Lerner responds:

That's it. That's the whole discussion. Lerner is ridiculously quick on the trigger to suggest referring the invitation to "exam," but even there, it's not clear that she wants Grassley referred as much as she wants an invitation that appears to be flouting rules. After she gets an explanation of everything it would take for Grassley to be at fault, Lerner shrugs and adds that she wouldn't want to share a stage at the event, the details of which, again, are obscured. That's a "push to audit" the senator?

I'm not naive enough to think the lack of things happening here means there's no story. When I asked the Twitterverse what the scandal was, I was asked rhetorically whether I was "okay" with Lerner's aborted audit and her itch to "criminalize GOPers." Let me be clear: I am as much against Lerner's "audit of Chuck Grassley" as I am Lerner's decision to set a school bus on fire and cut the brakes, watching it careen off a bridge and into a canyon. As she appears to have done neither of these horrible things, I'd argue that the vanishing of the IRS's and EPA's tranches of emails, for reasons that confound techies, are much more scandalous than the hour Lerner apparently spent wondering if she had to refer a senatorial speaking invitation to the exam department.

(It would be nice to ask Lerner what she meant, but she's hardly doing an AMA right now.)

Update: Missed this before, but the AP appears to have been the first on the "Grassley audit" story with a story headlined: "Emails: IRS Official Sought Audit of GOP Senator." You have to read down to the fifth graf to learn this:

It was unclear from the emails whether Lerner was suggesting that Grassley or the group be audited — or both. The other IRS official, Matthew Giuliano, waived her off, saying an audit would be premature because Grassley hadn't even accepted the invitation.

Unclear what Lerner was suggesting, but clear enough for a screaming headline confirming that she "sought an audit" of a pesky Republican senator.

Update II: Why overstate the story in a headline when you can perform some surgery on the emails themselves? At Townhall.com, Katie Pavlich files a story titled "Lois Lerner Asked IRS to Audit Republican Senator Chuck Grassley," adds the detail that Lerner opened email that "didn't belong to her in the first place" (it was sent to her), and quotes Lerner as writing "Perhaps refer him to exam?" The actual quote, in the emails printed at this blog and at Townhall, was the slightly more cryptic "Perhaps we should refer to Exam?" But that phrasing leaves some confusion as to whether Lerner meant Grassley or the group, so out it goes.

Update III: A friendly reader with knowledge of the tax-exempt divisions department writes in:

There's no possible way Lois actually had any authority to refer Grassley himself to Exam. She was the director of Exempt Organizations, for God's sake, one office in TE/GE, an IRS backwater. An audit of Grassley would have come from an entirely different operating division, Wage and Investment (W&I). The IRS is like a corporation with several subsidiaries. What's being suggested here makes as much sense as someone about five levels deep in Disney Cruise Lines calling Marvel Studios and telling them they should really think about a Howard the Duck reboot and would be received with a similar response.

OK, so let's look at which media outlets botched the story in the endless quest for a good headline and a Drudge link.

"Emails Reveal Former IRS Official At Center Of Scandal Suggested Targeting A Sitting GOP Senator For Audit" (Business Insider)

"Lerner sought IRS audit of sitting GOP senator, emails show" (Fox News)

"Lois Lerner of IRS sought audit of Grassley, emails say" (Des Moines Register)

Those headlines are as fake as Chuck Grassley's reaction to the story is confusing. In a statement last night—released 18 months after the emails were exchanged, months in which Grassley did not claim to be audited—the senator declared it "very troubling that a simple clerical mix-up could get a taxpayer immediately referred for an IRS exam without any due diligence from agency officials." That would be troubling, yes, except as the emails show us, the "agency officials" quickly decided that no one was being referred for an audit.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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