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CINCINNATI -- Tim Savaglio still isn't convinced.
The Liberty Township Tea Party board member poured over the 205-page transcript of an interview with a Cincinnati IRS manager that House Democrats released Tuesday.
And while Rep. Elijah Cummings said his goal was for the transcript to convince the American people that the still smoldering Internal Revenue Service scandal wasn't politically motivated, he sure didn't win over Savaglio.
"This person seems to be very sincere and dedicated to his job," Savaglio said of the manager who was interviewed after reviewing the bulk of the lengthy transcript. "Clearly the rank and file believe this is a Washington issue whether at the IRS or higher. I think there is an issue that permeates the entire organization top to bottom – bottom to top."
The scandal revolves around the improper targeting of conservative groups with "Tea Party," "Patriots" or "9/12 Project" in their names that had applied for tax-exempt status around two election cycles. The practice apparently started in March 2010, according to an audit written by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The audit outlined a nearly three-year period where managers and coordinators changed often and emails were not answered at a time when applications for tax-exempt status more than doubled year-over-year.
Of course, Savaglio acknowledged, he's more than a bit biased. After all, the Liberty Township Tea Party was one of hundreds of conservative groups that applied for nonprofit status from the IRS and were targeted for the extra scrutiny. After a delay of more than three years, the group still doesn't have an answer.
Congressional investigators have been working for weeks to determine who ordered the conservative groups to be targeted and how far up the agency's chain of command the issue went.
Answers Don't Completely Support Either Side
The lengthy transcript released Tuesday, believed to be the interview of veteran employee John Shafer, sheds light on the processes used by the Cincinnati office to review applications for tax exempt status. But the answers aren't as clear as previously released excerpts from the interview seemed to indicate.
For example, a question on page 135 asked if Shafer is aware of any political bias in the Cincinnati office.
"I'm not aware of that," he answered.
Later, on page 141, a Congressional investigator asked if Shafer had any reason to believe the White House was involved.
"I have no reason to believe that," he answered.
Both responses bolster the argument that Cummings and other Democrats have made that the scandal was a Cincinnati-based problem that didn't reach into the upper levels of the federal government.
But there are other portions that give credence to Congressional Republicans' belief that the problem was not limited to Cincinnati and that higher-ups in Washington, D.C. were involved.
Page 198, for example, documents a question from another investigator who asked if Shafer would agree "it all originated" in Cincinnati.
"I do not," he answered.
That's followed by a question on page 199 asking if it's "fair to say" that Washington, D.C., was "involved?"
"That's a fair statement," Shafer answered.
Savaglio also noted that Shafer stressed repeatedly that groups requesting tax-exempt status were judged on their own merits. Yet other parts of the interview make clear that so-called "Tea Party" cases were bundled and sent to another IRS department for further review.
"I believe they saw ‘Tea Party' and freaked!" Savaglio said in an email. "That may be a non-political/partisan reaction or not, but something said to them this was due extra attention. How they square that with a history of passing progressive groups through without the same scrutiny is beyond me."
The TIGTA audit found that scores of conservative groups were asked unnecessary and intrusive questions as part of the processing of their applications.
For the Liberty Township Tea Party, that included a question about Justin Binik-Thomas, a Deer Park businessman active in the Cincinnati Tea Party who had no affiliation with the Liberty Township organization.
For his part, Binik-Thomas said he is "not convinced" by the transcript that the targeting wasn't somehow politically motivated.
The interview, he said, doesn't clarify why conservative groups were selected. And, he added in an email, it "does not mention why an individual was included in the questions (me)."
And that's the question Binik-Thomas wants answered most of all.
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