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Politics

GOP seeks to ensnare health law in IRS scandal

Lawmakers allege pattern of threats, coverups

Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George (left) and Steve Miller, the former IRS commissioner, testified before Congress on Friday.

Michael Reynolds/EPA

Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George (left) and Steve Miller, the former IRS commissioner, testified before Congress on Friday.

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans — not resting with the Internal Revenue Service scandal — are moving to broaden the matter to an array of tax malfeasances and ‘‘intimidation tactics’’ they hope will ensnare the White House.

Republican charges range from the clearly questionable to the seemingly specious, and they grow by the day. On Friday, lawmakers sought to tie the IRS matter to the implementation of President Obama’s health care law, which will rely heavily on the agency. Whether they succeed holds significant ramifications for Obama, who will soon know if he is dealing with a late spring thunderstorm that may soon blow over or a consuming squall that will leave lasting damage.

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Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, the usually mild-mannered chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, set the tone Friday at Congress’s first hearing on the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, laying out details, from the alleged threatening of donors to conservative nonprofit groups to the leaking of confidential IRS documents.

In that context, he said, the screening of Tea Party groups for special scrutiny was not the scandal itself but ‘‘just the latest example of a culture of coverups — and political intimidation — in this administration.’’ “It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election,’’ Camp said.

Taken aback, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, modified his prepared remarks to warn, ‘‘If this hearing becomes essentially a bootstrap to continue the campaign of 2012 and to prepare for 2014, we will be making a very, very serious mistake.’’

Republicans raised a long list of issues. Camp contended, for instance, that a White House official’s divulging of a private company’s tax status constituted ‘‘a clear intimidation tactic.’’ The 2010 incident involved an offhand comment by the White House economist Austan Goolsbee that Koch Industries had not paid corporate income taxes because it pays taxes through the personal income tax code. As it turned out, that was not true, but the assertion was made in a discussion of tax reform ideas, not politics.

The Republicans also criticized the publication of donors to the National Organization for Marriage, a group opposed to same-sex marriage. That donors list surfaced mysteriously in March 2012 from a whistle-blower whose identity is still unknown. The whistle-blower apparently obtained it by simply requesting it from the IRS.

Linkage to the health care law came through Sarah Hall Ingram, a longtime IRS official who has headed the agency’s Affordable Care Act implementation program since December 2010. Before that, she led the IRS’s tax-exempt and government-entities division, which contained the political targeting effort.

‘‘This is an audit, and it’s helpful,’’ Representative Tim Griffin, Republican of Arkansas, said of the investigation of IRS targeting by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, ‘‘but it’s the tip of the iceberg.’’

But the inspector general made clear that the effort did not reach the attention of high-level IRS officials until 2011 at the earliest.

The inspector general gave Republicans some fodder Friday when he divulged that he informed the Treasury’s general counsel he was auditing the IRS’s screening of politically active groups seeking tax exemptions on June 4, 2012. He told Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin ‘‘shortly after,’’ he said. That meant Obama administration officials were aware of the matter during the presidential campaign year.

The disclosure last summer came as part of a routine briefing of the investigations that the inspector general would be conducting in the coming year, and he did not tell the officials of his conclusions that the targeting had been improper, he said.

Treasury officials stressed they did not know the results until March 2013, when the inspector presented a draft.

“Treasury strongly supports the independent oversight of its three inspectors general, and it does not interfere in ongoing IG audits,’’ the department said in a statement Friday evening.

Still, Inspector General J. Russell George’s testimony fueled efforts by congressional Republicans to ensnare Obama in the swirl of scandals suddenly besetting the White House. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP vice presidential candidate last year, said of the revelation, ‘‘That raises a big question.’’

One release that turned out to be advertent was last Friday’s disclosure of the agency’s targeting of conservative groups. Steven Miller, the ousted IRS commissioner, confessed that the agency’s apology was prompted by a question planted by the agency at an American Bar Association meeting. At that meeting, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS’s division overseeing tax-exempt organizations, was asked about an inquiry into the targeting issue, eliciting an apology that quickly leaked out of the closed-door session. The IRS then scrambled to issue a formal release on the issue.

Miller divulged that the exchange was not an impromptu apology but a planned exchange between Lerner and Celia Roady, a tax lawyer at the Washington office of the Morgan Lewis law firm. That revelation only underscored the ham-handed way the scandal has burst into view.

Under fire, Miller called the agency’s targeting of conservative groups ‘‘obnoxious,’’ but he told the House Ways and Means Committee it was not motivated by partisanship. And in testy exchanges, he said he had not misled Congress, even though he did not divulge the targeting efforts of a Cincinnati unit examining 70,000 applications for tax exemption.

He called the group’s centralization of applications simply ‘‘foolish mistakes.’’

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