Analysis: GOP broadens its scope

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WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans -- not resting with the Internal Revenue Service scandal -- are moving to broaden the matter to an array of tax malfeasances and "intimidation tactics" they hope will ensnare the White House.

Republican charges range from the clearly questionable to the seemingly specious, and they grow by the day. On Friday, lawmakers sought to tie the IRS matter to implementation of President Barack Obama's health care law, which will rely heavily on the agency. Whether they succeed holds significant ramifications for Mr. Obama, who will soon know if he is dealing with a late-spring thunderstorm that may soon blow over or a consuming squall that will leave lasting damage.

The usually mild-mannered House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich.,, set the tone Friday at Congress' first hearing on the IRS targeting of conservative groups, laying out details, from the alleged threatening of conservative nonprofit groups' donors to the leaking of confidential IRS documents. In that context, he said, screening Tea Party groups for special scrutiny was not the scandal itself, but "just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups -- and political intimidation -- in this administration."

"It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election," Mr. Camp said.

Taken aback, Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin, the panel's ranking Democrat, modified his prepared remarks to warn, "If this hearing becomes essentially a bootstrap to continue the campaign of 2012 and to prepare for 2014, we will be making a very, very serious mistake."

Republicans raised a long list of issues. Mr. Camp contended, for instance, that a White House official's divulging of a private company's tax status constituted "a clear intimidation tactic." The 2010 incident involved an offhand comment by White House economist Austan Goolsbee that Koch Industries had not paid corporate income taxes, because it pays taxes through the personal income tax code. As it turned out, that was not true, but the assertion was made in a discussion of tax reform ideas, not politics.

The Republicans also criticized the publication of donors to the National Organization for Marriage, a group opposed to same-sex marriage. That donors list surfaced mysteriously in March 2012 from a whistle-blower whose identity is still unknown. The whistle-blower apparently obtained it by simply requesting it from the IRS.

Linkage to the health care law came through longtime IRS official Sarah Hall Ingram, who has headed the agency's Affordable Care Act implementation program since December 2010. Before that, she led the IRS' tax-exempt and government-entities division, which contained the political targeting effort.

"This is an audit, and it's helpful," Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., said of the investigation of the IRS targeting by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, "but it's the tip of the iceberg."

But the inspector general made clear that the targeting effort did not reach the attention of high-level IRS officials until 2011, at the earliest.

The inspector general gave Republicans some fodder Friday, when he divulged that he informed the Treasury's general counsel that he was auditing the IRS' screening of politically active groups seeking tax exemptions on June 4, 2012. He told Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin "shortly after," he said. That meant Obama administration officials were aware of the matter during the presidential campaign year.

The disclosure last summer came as part of a routine briefing about investigations the inspector general would be conducting in the coming year, and he did not tell officials of his conclusions that the targeting had been improper, he said.

Treasury officials have stressed that they did not know the results until March 2013, when the inspector presented a draft.

"Treasury strongly supports the independent oversight of its three inspectors general, and it does not interfere in ongoing IG audits," the department said in a statement Friday evening.

Still, Inspector General J. Russell George's testimony fueled efforts by congressional Republicans to ensnare Mr. Obama in the swirl of scandals suddenly besetting the White House. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice-presidential candidate last year, said of the revelation, "That raises a big question."

Republicans hit hard on divulging of confidential tax information, hinting of intimidation not only by the IRS, but also by the White House.

ProPublica, an investigative journalism website, asked the IRS's Cincinnati office for applications of 67 nonprofits, both liberal and conservative. When the IRS responded, it inadvertently included applications for nine conservative groups that had not yet been granted tax-exempt status, a violation of confidentiality law.

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