Should a special counsel take over the Justice Department probe of lost IRS emails and the targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups?
Attorney General Eric Holder says there’s no need: his Justice Department is conducting a thorough and fair investigation.
But can the Justice Department be impartial in IRS probe of “lost” documents while, at the same time, defending the IRS in civil litigation over the lapse?
The question is raised in the context of a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed against the IRS by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. In what seems to be yet another about-face, Justice Department lawyers Friday told Judicial Watch the elusive documents may have been saved, after all, on some type of government-wide backup system from which materials are difficult to retrieve. So, on the one hand, the Justice Department is investigating the IRS. On the other, it is representing and defending the IRS.
IRS Manager to Justice Dept. lawyer (then working for IRS): “Be on the lookout for a tea party case.”
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee have found another supposed conflict of interest that they say makes it more difficult for the Justice Department to impartially investigate its sister agency: a current Justice Department attorney was himself, “involved in the IRS’s scheme to target conservatives.” They made that new allegation this week in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
According to new documents obtained by the Committee, attorney Andrew Strelka of the Justice Department’s Tax Division used to work in the IRS group headed by Lois Lerner, a key figure in the Justice Department investigation. Lerner has taken the fifth twice to avoid testifying to Congress and the House voted to hold her in contempt.
“I owe a big thanks to you for hiring me,” Strelka wrote in an email to Lerner in 2012 after he departed from her division and was recognized with a federal bar award.
The Committee also released a March 2010 e-mail from an IRS manager advising Strelka (then working at the IRS) to “[b]e on the lookout for a tea party case.”
“If you have received or do receive a case in the future involving an exemption for an organization having to do with tea party let me know.” –IRS Manager to Strelka
On May 14, 2013 a Treasury Department Inspector General report found the IRS used inappropriate criteria to single out conservative groups seeking non-profit status.
Last May, the House voted to request appointment of a special counsel to investigate the IRS targeting scandal. Twenty-six Democrats voted with Republicans. Prior to that, in a letter to Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who is also calling for a special counsel, Holder wrote that “such an appointment is not warranted.” Holder assured Cruz that the Justice Department “remains committed to integrity and fairness…without regard to politics.”
“[P]olitics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges,” Holder wrote in his March 10, 2014 letter to Cruz. “Any other approach would be inconsistent with the fundamental principles to which this Department is dedicated.”
Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) also raised conflict of interest concerns about the Justice Department’s Nicole Siegel, who acts as liaison with Congress on the Lerner investigation. Issa writes that Siegel “appeared to have maintained a close relationship with Lerner and previously worked for a political action committee to assist political fundraising for Democratic candidates.” The Committee has asked that Strelka and Siegel appear for interviews with Committee staff.
The IRS disclosed to Congress in June that some of Lerner’s archived documents, which were subpoenaed by Congress, were irrevocably “lost” due to a hard drive crash in 2011 that was not properly reported at the time under federal records law. Strelka, the current Justice Department attorney, was made aware of the crash at the time, according to emails obtained by the Committee.