By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican U.S. congressman investigating the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of conservative groups said on Sunday the targeting was likely directed from Washington, a claim quickly rejected by a top Congressional Democrat involved in the probe.
In a move that could jeopardize the bipartisan co-operation that so far has characterized Congress's IRS investigations, Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said on CNN that interviews his staff conducted last week with Cincinnati IRS employees indicate these employees were being "directly ordered" from Washington to target Tea Party groups.
The Oversight Committee Republicans posted online on Sunday excerpts from interview transcripts of two Cincinnati IRS employees, one man and one woman, who talked to Democratic and Republican staffers in Washington, committee aides told Reuters. The individuals' names are being withheld to protect their identities, they said.
The IRS Cincinnati office is responsible for reviewing more than 60,000 tax-exempt applications a year. It remains unclear who in that office was responsible for using "Tea Party" language to screen applications for extra scrutiny in early 2010.
"This is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it," Issa said Sunday morning on CNN's "State of the Union."
The top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, rejected Issa's claims, accusing him of "lobbing unsubstantiated conclusions on national television for political reasons."
"So far, no witnesses who have appeared before the committee have identified any IRS official in Washington, D.C. who directed employees in Cincinnati to use ‘tea party' or similar terms to screen applicants for extra scrutiny," Cummings said in a statement.
'I BELIEVE SO'
Committee Democrats did not receive last week's full interview transcripts until late Sunday, and were frustrated by Issa's move to first post excerpts online, a Democratic committee aide told Reuters on Sunday.
This week, the committee is scheduled to interview two more-senior IRS employees from Cincinnati, committee aides said.
One of the individuals interviewed last week, a low-level, male IRS employee, when asked by a committee investigator about whether Tea Party scrutiny "emanated from Washington," he said: "I believe so," according to the transcript excerpts.
A more senior female IRS employee, who handled the Tea Party portfolio, said there was "micromanagement" from Washington.
"I was taking all my direction" from the exempt-organization office in Washington, the employee said, according to the transcript excerpts.
This individual asked to be transferred off the Tea Party portfolio.
The IRS has been under fire for three weeks since a mid-level IRS administrator publicly apologized at a conference for the extra scrutiny. That scrutiny was outlined in a Treasury Department inspector general report, which concluded mismanagement allowed low-level employees to develop the controversial criteria for targeting political groups.
An IRS internal review also concluded that workers in the Cincinnati office were responsible for the scrutiny.
The controversy has led to the ousting by President Barack Obama of the agency's top executive and an FBI investigation, and has become a major distraction for the White House.
Separately, the IRS came under renewed pressure for its conference spending. Issa's committee said on Sunday the IRS spent nearly $50 million on 220 conferences from 2010 to 2012, according to a report due out Tuesday from the IRS watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The Treasury Department said in a statement on Sunday IRS conference spending fell to under $5 million in 2012 from $37 million in 2010.
Issa will hold a hearing on Thursday to discuss the report.
(Additional reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Eric Walsh)