House Committee Votes To Censure I.R.S. Commissioner, Impeachment May Soon Follow
The man who was brought in to clean up the I.R.S. after the alleged targeting scandal became public is facing censure and possible impeachment. Proving that there really is such a thing as a thankless job.
The House Oversight Committee voted yesterday to censure the Commissioner of the I.R.S. due to alleged failures to cooperate in its investigation of the allegations that the I.R.S. targeted conservative organizations seeking tax exempt status:
WASHINGTON — A polarized House committee on Wednesday recommended that the House censure the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, John A. Koskinen, and seek to strip him of his office and his federal pension for “a pattern of conduct” that betrayed the trust of Congress and the public.
Following the House Republicans’ vote in 2012 to hold the attorney general at the time, Eric H. Holder Jr., in contempt of Congress, the action against Mr. Koskinen appeared to show the lengths they would go to pursue Obama administration officials they oppose. Separately they are considering the more severe action of impeaching Mr. Koskinen, a move that has not been taken against a federal executive other than two presidents in 140 years.
Censure by the House would be the first step, supporters say, yet its impact will probably be limited to political symbolism. The Senate, also run by Republicans, is not expected to follow suit, or to support impeachment. It is unclear when the full House might act on the censure resolution, said aides to House Republican leaders, who are unenthusiastic about the effort against the commissioner.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23 to 15 for his censure, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed, after hours of exchanging condemnation and praise for Mr. Koskinen.
The roots of the case against him go back to May 2013, when Republicans alleged that a politically motivated I.R.S. subjected Tea Party groups to unfair scrutiny as they sought tax-exempt status. Mr. Koskinen was hired in late 2013 to steady the agency and restore confidence, after the events in question. Republicans charge that he was complicit in the destruction of I.R.S. emails pertinent to the alleged targeting, and that he lied about the emails in testimony to Congress.
Mr. Koskinen, who was not present during Wednesday’s meeting, has denied wrongdoing and said he testified based on his understanding at the time. Democrats repeatedly noted that the inspector general of the Treasury, a Republican, and the Justice Department found no evidence of political motivation either in the handling of the emails or in the scrutiny of conservative groups.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah and chairman of the oversight committee, said that Mr. Koskinen delayed at least two months in telling Congress two years ago, in June 2014, that pertinent emails had been among those routinely destroyed at the I.R.S.’s West Virginia office. “And then he lied to us, under oath,” Mr. Chaffetz said, about what emails he would produce.
Since then, Mr. Chaffetz said, “Mr. Koskinen has never made an attempt to clarify or amend any of his prior statements.”
While he said the commissioner should be impeached — next week the House Judiciary Committee will hold a second hearing on that — “censure is a helpful first step.”
“We owe it to the American people to ensure government officials are held accountable for misconduct,” Mr. Chaffetz said. “When there is a duly issued subpoena, you have to comply with it. When you come to Congress, you must testify truthfully. If you find later that there has been a mistake in your testimony, you need to come and explain that and correct the record.”
The Democratic minority put up a vigorous if doomed defense, led by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the senior party member on the committee. He called the case against the commissioner “bogus” and “a travesty.”
“John Koskinen is an honorable man,” Mr. Cummings said. “This 76-year-old gentleman came out of retirement to take on the difficult and thankless job.”
Mr. Cummings told Mr. Chaffetz: “Your core accusation against the commissioner is that he was deceitful and that he misled the Congress, but you completely disregard the difference between a misstatement and a lie.”
Mr. Cummings also quoted praise for Mr. Koskinen from Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican colleague of Mr. Chaffetz in Utah’s congressional delegation, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that has jurisdiction over the I.R.S. The censure resolution “is going nowhere,” Mr. Cummings said. “It has no practical effect.”
Democrats pointed to what they described as three factual inaccuracies in Mr. Chaffetz’s resolution. Mr. Cummings, suggesting the irony of that, said he was sure those were “honest mistakes” by Mr. Chaffetz, though “the same is true of Commissioner Koskinen.”
Mr. Chaffetz acknowledged one mistake about exactly when Mr. Koskinen learned the emails had been destroyed and amended the language of the resolution to correct it, but he and the Republicans defeated Democrats’ amendments otherwise.
Republicans on the committee repeatedly raised the allegations of targeting of conservative groups that predated Mr. Koskinen’s arrival at the I.R.S. and were not part of the case against him. Even as the committee met, the group Tea Party Patriots emailed a fund-raising appeal tied to its push for Mr. Koskinen’s punishment.
As I noted when the notion of Koskinen being impeached was first being considered, the irony of the position Koskinen finds himself in is that he was not even the Commissioner of the I.R.S. when the alleged targeting of the applications of conservative organizations for 501(c)(4) status took place. Instead, he was the guy who was brought in, ostensibly after having retired from government service, to clean up the mess at the I.R.S. that the -targeting allegations had created. In fact, neither Daniel Wefel nor Stephen Miller, who had served as Acting IRS Commissioner from the time the last Commissioner confirmed by the Senate resigned shortly after the 2012 Presidential election to December 2013 and immediately preceded Koskinen in the position were in office at the time the alleged targeting was taking place.
The cause of the House Committee’s dispute with Koskinen, though, wasn’t about the alleged targeting itself, but about the Committee’s investigation and his role in the agencies alleged failure to cooperate with the committee. Essentially, the Committee’s dispute with Koskinen, which The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips explains in detail, concerns the production of documents in connection with the investigation, including specifically the emails of retired IRS employee Lois Lerner, who was charged with overseeing the office that reviewed 501(c)(4) applications. Initially, the agency told Congress that the majority of these emails were permanently lost due to a system crash, but later evidence seemed to indicate that at least some of the emails actually still existed while others may have been permanently lost due to the fact that the hard drive on Lerner’s computer was destroyed. As I noted at the time, these constantly changing stories did raise some credibility issues regarding the IRS’s cooperation with the investigation as well as the question of whether or not they were complying with the Federal Records Act and other laws and regulations that require official records to be preserved.
At the same time that the House Oversight Committee has been considering Koskinen’s censure, the Judiciary Committee has been considering whether or not he should be impeached and removed from office, something that has happened only nineteen times in American history. Of those nineteen, only one involved the impeachment of a Cabinet level official, and that was the impeachment of William Belknap, who served as Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant and was one of the members of Grant’s cabinet accused of personally profiting from kickbacks related to revenue from trading in Indian territory. Belknap was ultimately acquitted by the Senate, and it seems apparent that this is what would happen with Koskinen since it’s unlikely that there are sufficient votes in the Senate to reach the 2/3 majority required for conviction. In any case, even falling short of impeachment censure could be problematic for Koskinen in that it could cause him to lose his government pension along with other benefits. The Committee’s censure resolution now heads to the full House for a vote, but given the partisan makeup of that body, the outcome seems rather obvious.
Notwithstanding the allegations of I.R.S. foot dragging when it comes to document production, it strikes me that censure and impeachment are wild overreactions to what seems to be little more than a standard dispute between Congress and the Executive Branch. From the evidence I’ve seen, it’s clear that the problems related to record-keeping that led to the apparent loss of many of Lois Lerner’s emails pre-date Koskinen’s time in office and that any affirmative action that might have been taken to wrongfully destroy evidence, if that actually happened, occurred prior to the time that he was named Commissioner. For his part, Koskinen seems to have been trying to do his best to cooperate with the Committee’s requests only to find himself hobbled by bad record-keeping at the agency and other problems well beyond his control. To make him pay the price for the mistakes and potential wrongdoing of others seems massively unfair.