I-Team: Former Cincinnati IRS manager Bonnie Esrig speaks out

CINCINNATI - Bonnie Esrig retired in January after 38 years with the IRS. For the last 18 months of her career, she just happened to be a manager in the Cincinnati unit at the center of the agency's scandal.

Esrig continues to speak out after she said it appeared two so-called "rogue" agents in her office, known as the Cincinnati Determinations Unit, were being set up to take the fall for targeting tea party and other conservative groups.

Esrig says she was embarrassed and horrified when IRS division chief Lois Lerner, who ultimately was in charge of the tax-exempt screeners in Cincinnati, refused to answer questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week.

"I think that, for the general public, the fact that she refused to speak does taint the organization because it looks like there is something to hide," Esrig said.

For 18 months between 2011 and 2013, Esrig oversaw more than 100 agents in the Cincinnati Determinations Unit. The unit of more than 200 is at the center of a federal investigation into why agents singled-out tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status. Esrig says mistakes may have been made within the office, but she doesn’t believe politics motivated anyone.

"If -- and I don't believe there was malice -- but if there had been two ‘rogue' agents, it would have been identified and corrected far, far earlier," Esrig said.

We wanted to better understand the inside of the Cincinnati IRS office, so for 45 minutes Esrig helped us draw an organizational chart, starting at the top with Lerner and working down to Esrig's former boss here in Cincinnati, Cindy Thomas. Underneath Thomas, the organization is an absolute mess, and Esrig says IRS workers would have a hard time explaining this hierarchy.

That, she says, is part of the problem.

Esrig says the Cincinnati office was “chaotic,” a place where jobs changed constantly and information struggled to flow up the chain of command. Internal emails from 2011 show IRS managers trying to work out the specifics for a list of criteria to flag incoming applications. Esrig believes managers were only trying to do good work and didn’t realize at the time what they were doing was wrong.

"I think it's an enormous misinterpretation. I think that because the workforce is so diverse, if somebody had been – hypothetically - doing something inappropriate, their co-workers would have picked up on it. Their managers would have picked up on it. There are too many people with different views to let something like that pass," Esrig said.

Esrig says investigators have not tried to speak with her. However, at least four men and women in her old office have been summoned to Washington, D.C., for interviews by a congressional committee.

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