CINCINNATI - Congressional investigators have been working for weeks to determine whether partisan politics drove IRS agents in Cincinnati to target conservative groups for extra scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status.
And while they have yet to reach a definitive answer, local political observers say now partisanship is driving much of what's coming out of Washington, D.C., regarding the IRS scandal.
"This is, first and foremost, a war of headlines," said Gene Beaupre, director of community and government relations at Xavier University and a longtime student of politics.
"One of the principles of politics is, when you've got the other person down, keep them down. So you keep looking for new ways to keep them down," he said. "One may know going in that you're not going to get any traction on it. But it's a headline nonetheless."
At issue was the improper targeting of conservative groups with "tea party," "patriots" or "9/12 project" in their names that had applied to the IRS for tax-exempt status around two election cycles. The practice apparently started in March 2010 in the downtwon Cincinnati IRS office, according to an audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The scandal became national news in mid-May after Lois Lerner, head of the IRS office that reviews applications for tax-exempt status, acknowledged that the agency had given greater scrutiny to hundreds of groups with those conservative terms in their names. She has since been placed on paid leave from the agency.
Lerner's acknowledgement ignited a political firestorm that continues to rage. And some observers say debate over the scandal has become increasingly partisan, with Republicans generally arguing that higher-level officials in Washington, D.C., ordered the targeting. Democrats maintain low-level agents in Cincinnati did it on their own to handle an increasing workload.
Politicians: Other Side Of The Aisle Is To Blame
Inside the beltway, politicians on both sides of the aisle are clear about where the problem lies: With the other party.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders have said the federal tax code should be simplified so it's clear which types of groups should get tax exempt status and how much such groups can engage in political activity. But they differ on the approach the parties are taking when it comes to the IRS scandal.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said "the far right" in the House of Representatives is focused on investigating the IRS scandal, Benghazi and other controversies because it allows them to avoid doing the nation's business.
"They clearly want to change the subject. They want to deflect attention from their inability to pass a farm bill and their watering down of a transportation bill," said Brown, an Ohio Democrat. "They turn their attention to these investigations, always with the president in their crosshairs."
Republicans see it quite differently. GOP leaders have stressed the need to get to the bottom of the targeting.
In response to a question for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a McConnell spokesman sent WCPO Digital a news release from the Senate Republican Communications Center.
The headline: "Top Cincinnati Democrats are ‘Fed Up' With Their Federal Counterparts Over IRS Scandal, Argue The Problem Originated in Washington."
The release quoted liberally from a commentary column written by Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes and former Congressman Tom Luken, both Democrats. In the column, Rhodes and Luken wrote that they didn't believe Cincinnati employees were responsible for the targeting and said they were tired of federal politicians speaking ill of the region. But Senate Republicans seized on the fact that the two men said they believe the Cincinnati agents were acting on orders from Washington, D.C,, just as many Republicans do.
Dueling news releases issued this week from members of the House oversight committee leading the IRS investigation underscored the partisan politics surrounding the scandal.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House oversight committee, appeared on TV news programs June 9 and declared the "case is solved" and that interviews with Cincinnati IRS employees show the White House was not involved in the targeting of conservative groups. ( Cummings told Politico June 12 that the presidential "witch hunt" should end, not the entire investigation.)
He called on Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican who chairs the committee, to release the complete transcripts of Congressional investigators' interviews with IRS staff so the American people can get the full story. And he said if Issa won't, he will. Cummings, D-Maryland, again said late last week that he plans to release redacted interviews with IRS employees, including a handful of Cincinnati workers, on Monday.
Cummings' statements came a week after Issa appeared on weekend TV shows and declared that IRS employees in Cincinnati
"were being directly ordered from Washington" to target groups with tea party, 9/12 and patriot in their names.
Issa fired back at Cummings that it would be "reckless" to release full transcripts.
In a letter to Cummings dated June 11, Issa wrote that releasing partial transcripts of interviews with employees could "empower other witnesses to become whistleblowers" and "vindicate individuals who have been subjected to criticism or retaliation at the hands of their managers."
"On the other hand, if a full transcript were released, it would serve as a roadmap of the Committee's investigation," Issa wrote. "The transcript could be used by future witnesses and their attorneys to prepare answers to likely questions, and to devise testimony consistent with the narrative that previous witnesses presented to Committee investigators."
Expect Some ‘Gamesmanship'
Back here in Cincinnati, local political leaders say the investigation has taken a very partisan turn.
"There's going to be politics on both sides of it. There will be political gamesmanship," said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "Of course, I'm going to support Republicans who are investigating it. The party out of power in the executive branch ought to be holding the party in power accountable."
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke doesn't think that's what is going on, however.
Burke said he thinks Republicans in Congress are trying to drag out the investigation and the issue as long as they can.
"I just don't think this is that big of an issue," Burke said. "Obama's dealing with it, and it's time to move on."
But even if the Republicans are trying to keep the spotlight on the IRS, Rhodes said that's not the point.
"The point is, what are our protections against this kind of excess and manipulation and meddling and hassling people?" Rhodes said. "I don't know how anybody can defend this kind of stuff with a straight face. And I don't think it's partisan. I think it's wrong."
Copyright ©2007 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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