WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans gave an election-year airing to their complaints about IRS chief John Koskinen Tuesday, telling a GOP-run House committee that he should be impeached for lying to lawmakers and destroying evidence.
"Mr. Koskinen was sent to the IRS to clean it up but it's gotten worse," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the House Judiciary Committee, pressing a long-shot effort he's led since last year to remove the agency's commissioner. "As members of Congress, we have no reason to have any confidence that Mr. Koskinen will run one of the most powerful agencies with any integrity."
Koskinen and his Democratic defenders denied the allegations, with Democratic lawmakers accusing Republicans of pursuing a political vendetta. While the IRS has conceded that it treated conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status unfairly earlier this decade, Democrats said Republicans were ignoring previous investigations that have found the IRS' destruction of some emails sought by Congress was due to incompetence, not a purposeful effort to hide evidence.
"This resolution fails by every measure," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the Judiciary panel's top Democrat. "It arises from the worst partisan instincts. It is not based on the facts."
Citing recent travel, Koskinen declined to testify Tuesday but provided a written statement saying his agency "has responded comprehensively and in good faith" to congressional requests for documents.
But in one measure of the nasty election year climate, Republicans on the committee refused to formally make Koskinen's statement part of the record, with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., calling it "self-serving."
Conservative antipathy toward the IRS intensified in 2013 when the agency conceded that it had made unusually intensive, time-consuming demands of tea party groups attempting to qualify for tax-exempt status. Though some progressive organizations experienced similar problems, conservative organizations were singled out more often, drawing GOP wrath.
Chaffetz' effort, co-sponsored by 73 conservatives, plays to those partisan passions. It's won support from groups like the Tea Party Patriots, who emailed a fund-raising solicitation to supporters Tuesday that also urged them to press House GOP leaders to allow a vote on impeaching Koskinen.
Party leaders and many GOP lawmakers have been cool to the drive against Koskinen. It's unclear if House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will allow a vote to impeach him during an election year in which Republicans are trying to cast themselves as constructive.
Even if the House votes to impeach Koskinen, it would take a two-thirds majority for the Senate to oust him — a margin Democrats could easily block.
The impeachment drive focuses on how Koskinen responded to congressional GOP efforts to learn if conservative groups were targeted for political reasons. Republicans have made that allegation, but it remains unproven after several federal and congressional investigations.
Chaffetz chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, one of the panels that has investigated the IRS.
He faults Koskinen for not adequately responding to congressional subpoenas for all emails by Lois Lerner, who oversaw the IRS office that handled groups' applications for tax exempt status. She was held in contempt of Congress after refusing to testify to a House committee and eventually retired.
A hard drive on Lerner's computer crashed in 2011 and IRS employees erased 422 backup tapes in 2014 that Chaffetz says contained potentially thousands of her emails. That has prevented Congress "from ever learning exactly how and why" the IRS acted against tea party groups, Chaffetz said.
Koskinen also lied to Congress by asserting in 2014 that no emails were destroyed, and made little effort to recover the lost emails, Chaffetz says.
Koskinen said that his assurances to lawmakers that all emails congressional investigators were seeking had been preserved — which turned out to be untrue — were made before he knew data containing the emails had been destroyed. He said his agency has spent more than $20 million and produced 1.3 million pages of documents — including 78,000 Lerner emails — responding to investigations.
Democrats defended Koskinen, 76, who has had a long career in and out of government and took over the IRS in December 2013 after President Barack Obama named him to lead the agency away from the uproar over its actions. Koskinen's term as commissioner expires in November 2017, 10 months into the next president's term.
This story has been corrected to reflect accusation by Democratic lawmakers, not Koskinen.