published Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Legislators set to dig into IRS tea party targeting scandal


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Several Tennessee and Georgia Republicans in Congress will be digging as two House committees investigate the Internal Revenue Service's alleged targeting of right-leaning political groups, including the Chattanooga Tea Party.

Closest to home is U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican and junior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The GOP-dominated panel was among the first to announce hearings on actions the IRS acknowledged were "inappropriate" in challenging the tax-exempt status of tea party groups.

"We must have a full investigation of #IRS," DesJarlais told Twitter followers Monday. "[They] are a nonpartisan agency and cannot act as an arm of an administration or party."

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Nashville-area Republican, is an up-and-coming member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the House's chief tax-writing panel. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced the committee would hold an IRS hearing Friday.

Both House committees have subpoena power, giving Volunteer State Republicans an opportunity to publicly skewer IRS officials and hammer the White House over a scandal that has embarrassed the administration.

Throughout the 2012 election cycle, IRS agents scrutinized conservative organizations for additional reviews for tax-exempt status because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their exemption applications, The Associated Press reported. In some cases, groups were asked for lists of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, agency officials said.

Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said in a Saturday interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press that his group was among those targeted.

The IRS first blamed low-level office staff, saying top officials never knew about the emphasis on conservative organizations. But on Saturday the AP reported that high-ranking IRS officials were aware that low-level employees set their sights on tea party groups as early as 2011.

  • photo
    Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A top member of a Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, Black will have the ability to question agency officials as well as have access to internal documents.

"The IRS actions undermine our First Amendment rights and cannot be tolerated," Black wrote on Facebook. "That's why my colleagues and I ... have demanded that the IRS turn over ALL communications containing words such as 'tea party' and 'patriot' -- so that we can see what correspondence was exchanged behind closed doors and get to the bottom of this scandal!"

An influential Georgia Republican, U.S. Rep. Tom Price, and a key Peach State Democrat, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, also hold seats on Ways and Means.

At a White House news conference Monday, President Barack Obama said he learned about the IRS controversy from news reports. He vowed to seek accountability.

"I've got no patience for it," Obama said. "I will not tolerate it."

Ideas for dealing with the IRS already have surfaced in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, introduced a bill Monday that would hit biased IRS investigators with a $5,000 fine, five years in prison or both.

Right now, Turner's office said, termination is the steepest penalty for IRS employees who "discriminate against taxpayers."

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