WASHINGTON - Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Thursday that Congress might need to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the targeting of conservative groups by Internal Revenue Service employees in the agency's Cincinnati office.
In an exclusive interview with WCPO Digital and 9 On Your Side, Portman said appointment of a special prosecutor, or special counsel, "may be necessary" to determine exactly what happened and whether any laws were broken. But he said lawmakers also must see how various investigations into the matter proceed.
"I don't believe we can rely on the administration," Portman said. "I believe we need to clear the air here, and it's in part to ensure this never happens again. It may require this special counsel."
At issue is improper targeting of conservative groups with "Tea Party," "Patriots" or "9/12 Project" in their names that applied for tax-exempt status around two election cycles. The practice apparently started in March 2010 in the Cincinnati IRS office and went on for 18 months, according to a recently released audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation to determine whether any crimes were committed. It likely will focus on potential civil rights violations or those related to the Hatch Act, which restricts political activities of government workers. Two U.S. House committees also are investigating, and the U.S. Senate's Finance Committee held a hearing into the matter Tuesday.
Portman: 'IRS Misled Congress and the American People'
During that hearing, Portman seemed to suggest that former acting-IRS Commissioner Steven Miller had turned his back on the activity in the Cincinnati office. Miller said he sent an IRS team to Cincinnati in March 2012 to find out what was going on, but he wasn't briefed until May.
Portman: "So for six weeks, from March 23 when you sent your team down to Cincinnati to figure out what was going on, to May 3, you didn't bother to ask for any updates or interim reports from the team you tasked with investigating these serious allegations?"
Miller: "No sir, I don't believe I did."
Portman: "You sent a team off, and for six weeks you didn't ask them what was going on."
Miller: "I don't recollect that I did that one way or another, sir."
Portman said Thursday that he feels "the IRS misled Congress and the American people on this one." He noted that Miller assured Portman in a letter in late April 2012 that there was no targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. But when IRS staff told Miller otherwise just days later, he did not follow up to correct the record.
"It's a troubling pattern, I think, just like Benghazi, when they seem to be putting politics ahead of the public interest," Portman said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stopped short of saying a special prosecutor might be needed during an interview Wednesday with Fox News.
In a separate interview with WCPO Digital and 9 On Your Side that same day, McConnell said he's confident the Republican-controlled House's investigation will be vigorous. And he's hopeful that the Democratic-led Senate will seek a complete investigation, too.
"I wouldn't want to depend on the administration to investigate itself," he said. "Fortunately, we don't have to depend on that."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also spoke about the scandal during a Washington, D.C., news conference Thursday.
Boehner: 'You Can't Get a Straight Answer'
Boehner said it seemed "pretty inconceivable" to him that Treasury Department officials knew about the IRS targeting last year, but nobody told the president.
"What's most troubling in this White House is that the lights are on, but there doesn't seem to be anybody home," he said. "You can't get a straight answer."
Boehner has said in the past that he didn't think it would be necessary to appoint an independent lawyer to investigate the scandal.
And he said Thursday that the House Committee on Ways & Means and the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, which are investigating the matter, will determine the best ways to get the information they need to figure out exactly what happened.
"I have full confidence in their ability to get to the truth," he said, adding that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration also has launched a complete investigation.
During an Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday, J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, noted that the report his office released earlier this month was an audit, not an investigation.
Because of that, George said, his auditors couldn't compel IRS employees to talk to them. A full investigation, he said, could probe much deeper.
Despite those limitations, however, George's audit paints a picture of a disorganized Cincinnati IRS office that had little direct communication, leadership or oversight from managers in Washington.
The audit outlines – sometimes in painstaking detail – a nearly three-year period where managers and coordinators changed often, and emails were not answered at a time when the applications for tax-exempt status more than doubled year-over-year.
Auditors also documented a lack of training and uniformity in correspondence when communicating with potential political groups that had applied for tax-exempt status.
At one point, a group of specialists simply quit working on potential political cases for 13 months while waiting for help from Washington.
In response to the audit, the IRS said in a memo: "We believe the front line career employees that made the decisions acted out of a desire for efficiency and not out of any political or partisan viewpoint."
President Barack Obama forced Miller to resign and has promised a full inquiry. He insists he learned about the practice from news reports.
Portman said he hasn't ruled out the idea that Congressional committees might need to subpoena employees from the IRS Cincinnati office to ask them questions under oath.
But he's hopeful that some of the many good employees in the local office will come forward to explain what happened.
"Unfortunately, a few people in the Cincinnati office have given a bad name to the agency," Portman said. "What we need to see is people coming forward and telling the American people and Congress what happened."
Read the Inspector General's report at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/701443-inspector-generals-report-on-irs-reviews-of-tax.html