Over the weekend, USA Today reported on revelations that an agency executive in D.C. admitted to reviewing Tea Party applications. The admission, however, is a month old, stemming from a House Oversight interview with her in late May. It's been at least a week since the executive, Holly Paz, was placed on leave. Clearly, Rep. Darrell Issa is committed to getting you to refocus your anger on the IRS scandal, no matter how long it takes.
It's fitting, in a way, that the scandal involving the agency, now nearly a month old, proceeds in very IRS-like fashion: slowly, slowly, slowly, and with a ponderous accumulation of documentation. For about a month, the House Oversight Committee, which Issa chairs, has been investigating the IRS revelations. And for the past several weeks, Issa has been selectively leaking the contents of interview transcripts to the press to keep generating attention for the cause.
Issa's focus on the IRS scandal is clear from a visit to his committee's website. It's a tactic that is frustrating Rep. Elijah Cummings of Georgia — the ranking Democrat on Oversight — and his peers. In response to a set of transcripts Issa slowly leaked two weeks ago, Cummings released his own, citing a "conservative Republican" employee in Cincinnati who took the blame for beginning the improper scrutiny. But Cummings clearly isn't interested in continuing the slow trench war of competing releases. He's called on Issa to release all of the existing interviews at once, a process known colloquially as "tearing off the Band-Aid." The Washington Post reports:
Issa has argued that releasing full transcripts could undermine the investigation. He said in a letter to Cummings last week that such disclosures could help future witnesses “devise testimony consistent with the narrative that previous witnesses presented to committee investigators.”
But Issa’s staff has already made interviews available for review by members of the media. Those disclosures pose “exactly the same risks,” according to Cummings’ letter.
“Based on the totality of your actions to date, it seems very difficult for you to argue now that releasing the full transcripts to the public will somehow compromise the integrity of the committee’s investigation,” Cummings said.
Issa has not yet responded to Cummings' request. There's no reason for him to rush to do so. Issa is winning, keeping his pet issue, the IRS scandal, in the news despite the much more inflammatory revelations around government surveillance. Yes, Paz, the DC-based IRS administrator, has been sanctioned — to some extent, at least — but as the highest-ranking executive to admit awareness of the targeting, she still has value.
Issa made sure she was the focus of media attention today. The IRS, eager to do whatever it can to get past the scandal, put Paz on administrative leave perhaps ten days ago. But she's too politically valuable to be left alone. As Fox & Friends breathlessly noted this morning, Paz worked in "Washington, D.C." — bringing the IRS scandal closer to the White House's front steps, if only physically.
Paz' testimony to Congressional investigators offered Issa and opponents something to work with. In it, she admitted that she'd reviewed a number of applications from Tea Party groups. Or, rather, "tea party groups." USA Today reports:
"Since the first case that came up to Washington happened to have that name, it appeared to me that that's what they were calling it that as a shorthand, because the first case had been that," said Holly Paz, the Internal Revenue Service's director of rulings and agreements. She said "tea party" could mean any political group, just like "Coke" is used as a generic term for soda, or people refer to tissues as "Kleenex."
Paz said liberal groups were mentioned by name, alongside the Tea Party, on an IRS BOLO -- or "be on the lookout" -- list. Screeners in Cincinnati, where all applications for tax-exemptions are processed, used the list to identify sensitive or complex cases that should be sent to specialists in Cincinnati and Washington.
Paz's attorney claims that she was a "whistleblower," who on two occasions pointed out inappropriate behavior originating in Cincinnati to her supervisor, Lois Lerner. (Lerner is also on administrative leave.) USA Today's article was fairly brief, given that it indicated it had 222 pages of interviews to work with. Previously, Issa and Oversight have given the same transcripts to multiple outlets, so there may be more from more to come from Paz's interview. Plus, Politico reports that Oversight Republicans plan to call her back for additional testimony.
The NSA scandal is bipartisan in origin and outrage. The IRS is uniquely Obama's. There's much more political benefit for the president's opponents, then, in giving the latter scandal some breathing room. If and when the NSA furor blows over or calms down, Issa and the House Republicans are very likely to be waiting, transcripts in-hand.