Scandal Watch: Issa Expands IRS Targeting Investigation to FEC

Posted: Aug 08, 2013 12:40 PM

Did officials at the Federal Election Commission collude with the IRS to unfairly target and abuse conservative groups?   National Review drew attention to this potential angle last week, and now the House Oversight Committee is on the case.  A "phony scandal" creeps closer to another federal agency, and CNN has the report:

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa demanded Wednesday that the Federal Election Commission turn over records of more than five years of communications with the Internal Revenue Service -- a move that significantly expands the California Republican's ongoing probe of alleged federal targeting of conservative groupsIn a letter to FEC Chairman Ellen Weintraub -- a Democrat -- Issa cited CNN reporting on Monday that raises "the prospect of inappropriate coordination between the IRS and the FEC about tax-exempt entities." Among other things, Issa asked for records of all communications between the IRS and the FEC dating back to the start of 2008. He also requested records of any FEC discussions relating to tax-exempt applications or organizations since 2008.

[Issa's] letter came after Don McGahn, the vice chairman of the FEC and a Republican, told CNN that he saw an e-mail from an FEC investigator to Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS division responsible for reviewing applications from various groups for tax-exempt status. The investigator asked Lerner, herself a former FEC employee, to discuss the status of the American Future Fund, a conservative political advocacy group. McGahn noted that after Lerner was contacted, the IRS sent a questionnaire to the American Future Fund. Lerner, the figure at the center of the congressional investigation into alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify before Issa's panel in May. "Dealing with Lois Lerner is probably out of the ordinary," McGahn said, stressing that FEC commissioners had not given their staffers permission to reach out to the IRS on the matter, a step typically required for such inquiries.

If you watch the embedded video, correspondent Dana Bash does a nice job summarizing the issues at play here, starting at around the (2:05) mark.  Bash lays out the possibility of impropriety, touches on Democrats' predictable "nothing to see here!" defense, then quickly refutes it by describing the "questionable" communication evidenced in at least two email exchanges.  The committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, can't decide whether he wants every strand of this controversy investigated, or if it's all settled.  He fluctuates between both postures, apparently depending on his party's perceived interests.  Cummings may have circled back to "it's solved" now that glimmers of Democrats' "both sides were targeted" narrative have been effectively extinguished by the facts (though that probe remains ongoing).  One intriguing element of this scandal's latest permutation is that it thrusts Lois Lerner back into the spotlight.  Lerner has been knee-deep in the targeting imbroglio from the very beginning, and has refused to testify before Congress, citing her right against self-incrimination.  As I reported in May, Lerner was once an official at the FEC official whose zeal for finding fault in potential violators was unusual, according to a former colleague:

After Engle was promoted to chief legal counsel for FEC Commissioner Lee Ann Elliot, his new perch afforded him the opportunity to see and read all of Lerner's memos and recommendations.  "What did I see?  I saw everything," he says. "I saw everything the commissioners were asked to vote on.  How did I feel?  I would say that Lois is pro-government.  The bigger, the better.  The more demanding the regulations, the better. The larger the investigation, the better it is.  Anything that would be considered an activist government, that's the Lois Lerner I worked with." Engle says Lerner saw violations around every corner, even when her legal reasoning was slight.  "Under [Lerner], the general counsel's office functioned as a prosecutor.  Nine times out of ten, her recommendations were against the respondent.  I think she was philosophically opposed to money in politics and was very much a critic of people spending money in political affairs.  She could always find a violation -- at least in her opinion, or in her head.  In my opinion, her interpretation of the law was sometimes just incorrect."  Engle believes Lerner relished her role as a regulator that allowed "government to bestow things on people rather than acknowledging them as equals, based neutrally on the law," he explains. 

Now that the FEC has been roped in to this investigation, it's only appropriate that Lerner -- again -- is taking center stage.  Ed Morrissey injects some added clarity into this conversation and asks several relevant questions: "That one particular e-mail didn’t ask for confidential information, but as Weintraub herself notes, the information it did explicitly request was publicly available. Why, then, ask the FEC to involve itself in an IRS investigation at all? Why didn’t the investigator look up the FEC filings on line, as many of us do? Lois Lerner, who worked at the FEC prior to the IRS, was known for politicizing her work in both places, and it’s very interesting that IRS investigators reached out to Lerner’s old haunts to target conservatives."  That's exactly the point, and it's why CNN's reporter refers to the recently-revealed email correspondence as "questionable."  All add another question: Is it merely a coincidence that after an FEC investigator contacted Lerner about the American Future Fund, the organization received a questionnaire from the Internal Revenue Service?  Also, what else is lurking in those email files?  Darrell Issa would like to know.