The IRS scandal involving the improper targeting of conservative groups first broke 20 days ago, on May 10th. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was starting a Justice Department criminal investigation of the IRS allegations on Tuesday May 14th. On Thursday May 16th, President Obama announced unsurprisingly that he did not favor the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the IRS targeting, even though it’s not his call to make. Chairman Dave Camp of the House Ways and Means Committee held the first congressional hearing about the explosive Inspector General’s report on Friday May 17th. Lois Lerner, Director of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, became the first scandal figure to invoke the 5th amendment to avoid self-incrimination on Wednesday May 22nd before Chairman Darrell Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In Washington when an inflammatory scandal such as this first breaks, things move very fast. These initial moments are the reason why phrases like “the cover-up is worse than the crime” and “what did he know and when did he know it” were born. These are the moments when people talk to get their stories straight. These are the moments when documents can disappear. These are the moments when investigators must be ready.
Chairman Issa does not support the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the IRS scandal, stating “When I can’t do my job because I lack the authority or cooperation, I’ll seek additional remedies.” That statement sounds rational, until you consider the full picture. First of all, Congress can’t indict, try, and convict. Congress can simply hold public hearings and report facts, something they should continue doing. Chairman Issa knows his congressional investigation can only go so far. On the criminal investigation side of the ledger, the only thing we know for sure is that Attorney General Eric Holder is running it.
Does anyone think that Mr. Holder, who serves at the pleasure of President Obama, is running an aggressive investigation of his boss’ IRS and its political targeting? Knowing all this, how can anyone be against the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the IRS in an independent manner? The best formula for this case is for a public congressional investigation and a criminal investigation by a special counsel to exist simultaneously. Will an ongoing criminal investigation by a special counsel perhaps limit access to witnesses for a congressional committee? The answer is yes, but Eric Holder’s criminal investigation is already doing that. The most important thing that can happen going forward is to get this criminal investigation out of the Justice Department because it has a clear conflict of interest in this case.
Until that happens, it’s up to Chairman Issa to act aggressively because Attorney General Holder cannot be trusted to move his investigation quickly. If he hasn’t already, Mr. Issa should issue subpoenas to the White House and IRS for all communications between the two since the beginning of the Obama Administration. Who from the IRS visited the White House and vice versa? Who met regularly and why? Who spoke on the phone regularly and why? Who emailed regularly and why? The White House subpoena should also ask for all documents in the possession of the Executive Office of the President relating to tax-exempt organizations.
In addition, a subpoena should also be sent to the Justice Department and FBI asking for all communications between these organizations and the White House since the scandal broke. This subpoena should also inquire as to if the IRS Inspector General ever informed the Justice Department or FBI of his pending investigation before it became public knowledge and what actions were taken as a result. Finally, all White House and other administration officials potentially involved should be asked or compelled to take a deposition under oath. The more time that elapses, the more time you give people to get their “stories” straight.
For Chairman Issa, time is of the essence. In the meantime, certain Members of Congress should rethink their opposition to a special counsel.