The continuing war of words between the Republicans in the House of Representatives and the leadership of the Internal Revenue Service escalated dramatically late Monday, when the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued an ultimatum to President Obama: Fire IRS John Koskinen, or the House will move ahead with Contempt of Congress charges and, perhaps, impeachment.
The Oversight Committee has since 2013 been investigating the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS in the year prior to the 2012 presidential election. The agency has been accused of singling out conservative-leaning groups that applied for tax-exempt status, thereby making it difficult for them to organize opposition to President Obama and other Democratic candidates.
Koskinen was not at the agency when the targeting took place; he took over the agency in December of 2013 in the middle of the investigation that focused on the emails sent and received by Lois Lerner, the former director of the department in charge of tax-exemption rulings.
A former corporate turnaround specialist who came to government service after decades in the private sector, Koskinen was brought in to put a new face on an agency long at odds with the GOP Congress. However, after a brief interlude of kind words and expressions of hope, Koskinen quickly found himself in the committee’s crosshairs when the agency’s multiple missteps in handling the production of Lerner’s emails – including the destruction of computer backup tapes – became public.
Members of the committee believe that Koskinen knowingly misled them when he testified that the agency had made every effort to secure Lerner’s emails, and on Monday the members’ frustrations seem to have boiled over.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the committee head, held a press conference that featured a 10-minute, professionally produced video outlining the committee’s case for calling for Koskinen’s removal. He followed that up by presenting a 30-page letter to the president, signed by himself and 20 other members of the committee, detailing their complaints against the IRS head.
“Mr. Koskinen should no longer be the IRS Commissioner,” Chaffetz said. “We have asked the President to remove Mr. Koskinen from office.
He added, “We will pursue all constitutional remedies at our disposal, including potential contempt proceedings or perhaps impeachment of Commissioner Koskinen.”
Were the House to move forward with a contempt citation it would be a rarity, but by no means a first. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first contempt citation in the targeting scandal. The House voted to hold Lois Lerner in contempt last year for her refusal to testify on the scandal.
(The House vote to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012 was notable because it was the first and only time a sitting cabinet-level official had been found in contempt.)
A contempt charge is not just a formality, either. If either the full House or full Senate finds someone in contempt, the chamber’s presiding officer then presents the contempt finding to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who is obligated to bring the issue before a grand jury. An individual found guilty of contempt is liable to spend up to a year in jail, and faces a fine of up to $1,000.
Contacted Tuesday morning, the IRS did not immediately offer a statement on the letter.