Ohio House committee might subpoena Cincinnati IRS workers

Supporters say agency was just doing its job

CINCINNATI - A committee of the Ohio House of Representatives might subpoena Cincinnati IRS workers to ask why they targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny of the groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.

Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said during a hearing Thursday he thinks the Ohio House’s Committee on Policy and Legislative Oversight should subpoena Cincinnati IRS workers to get answers for the people and groups who were targeted.

Committee Chairman Michael Dovilla, a Republican from Berea, said that’s something he’s still considering.

“I think that’s something we ought to do,” said Huffman, who is a lawyer. “Otherwise this becomes something of a paper tiger.”

The committee held a field hearing at the University of Cincinnati Thursday to listen to witnesses whose groups were targeted, or who were targeted personally, by the IRS. On May 28, Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, and Rep. Dale Mallory, D-Cincinnati, introduced House Concurrent Resolution 27 to urge the IRS to take immediate action to correct its policies and stop targeting groups applying for tax-exempt status based on the groups’ political affiliation.

Taking A Stand

The scandal became national news after Lois Lerner, who was head of the IRS office tasked with reviewing applications for tax-exempt status, acknowledged May 10 that the agency had given greater scrutiny to hundreds of groups with conservative terms, such as “tea party,” in their names.

While Dovilla acknowledged that the resolution, if passed, wouldn’t have the force of law, he said state lawmakers feel it’s important to take a stand.

“This is an issue that began in Ohio with the Cincinnati IRS office,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “This can be used to motivate the right behavior and the right action.”

Among the witnesses who testified Thursday was Tim Savaglio, a board member of the Liberty Township Tea Party. The group applied for tax-exempt status more than three years ago and still hasn’t had the application approved or rejected. The organization has since become part of a federal lawsuit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice on behalf of 41 plaintiffs who say their applications were unlawfully delayed by the IRS.

Savaglio told committee members that his group has been impacted in several ways, including its meeting place. He said the church where the Liberty Township Tea Party met early in its existence received threats to its own tax-exempt status unless it stopped allowing the group to meet there.

Savaglio declined to name the church and said he didn’t know exactly who had made the threats, which he said occurred in early 2010. But the church took those threats seriously enough to ask the group to find a new meeting place, he said, and that had a big impact on the organization’s attendance.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Savaglio said. “But after a while, you start to wonder.”

There were several people who attended the hearing, however, who oppose HCR 27.

Among them was Catherine Turcer, a policy analyst for Common Cause Ohio. She said after the hearing that she agrees the IRS should never target one political side or another. But Turcer doesn’t believe that’s what happened, she said.

“The IRS has to go through this process of examining organizations that want tax benefits because that’s their job,” she said. “If your name is Liberty Township Tea Party – it’s got party in the title.”

David Little, a Cincinnati Democrat who attended the hearing as a concerned citizen, argued the committee was holding the hearing for “purely partisan purposes” to pander to Republican constituents.

“I would think tea party groups worried about the deficit would be glad the IRS is not granting tax-exempt status willy-nilly,” he said.

Next Steps in D.C.

Meanwhile, the scandal is still simmering in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continue to investigate.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told WCPO Digital Thursday that Congress should “do much more investigation to get to the bottom of it.”

“I’m hopeful that the House of Representatives will be able to get to the bottom of it and also that the Senate will have another hearing,” Portman said. “I just think at the end of the day, a criminal investigation is going to be required.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he’s not so sure about that, but he’s leaving the decision to the Congressional committees conducting the investigation.

“The IRS should never target anybody because of their political affiliation or their political philosophy,” Brown said. “What I want the IRS to do is make sure that groups that masquerade as charities but do political work do not get tax-exempt status – because that’s against the law.”

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