Call for IRS chief’s impeachment sends bigger message to feds

The latest movement to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen could have broader implications beyond the agency itself.

“Let’s not pretend that it’s not distracting, it’s not disconcerting,” said Bill Cowden, an attorney with the Federal Practice Group Worldwide Service and former senior trial attorney for the Justice Department. “When someone running an agency is getting attacked in this way, it makes it real difficult for you to do the business of the agency.”

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), along with 18 members of his committee, introduced a resolution Oct. 27 calling for Koskinen’s impeachment.

Given the allegations of impeachment, Koskinen’s resume of government experience and the fact that he assumed the commissioner’s role well after the agency’s controversial email and audit backlog scandal began, Cowden said he doesn’t expect Chaffetz’s resolution will get very far in Congress. But Congress should be wary of the implications the movement has on the IRS and current and future agency managers.

“If you’re not careful and you’re not judicious about when you’re using this threat and this impeachment authority, you’re going to end up with nobody who is competent and willing to serve in the U.S. government,” Cowden said.

A House Judiciary Committee aide told Federal News Radio the committee is examining the articles of impeachment.

If it clears a resolution for impeachment,  the full House would vote to impeach. Next, the Senate would convene a trial. The resolution would need a two-thirds majority vote from the Senate in order to impeach — and ultimately convict — Koskinen.

The resolution lists four articles for Koskinen’s impeachment:

  1. Failure to respond to congressional subpoenas.
  2. False and misleading statements during congressional testimony and failure to testify truthfully.
  3. Failure to notify Congress that evidence was missing.
  4. Failure to “act with competence” in overseeing the IRS investigation.

In an Oct. 27 statement to Federal News Radio, an agency spokesperson said the IRS “vigorously disputes the allegations in the resolution,” and that the agency complied with congressional investigations.

But the House won’t likely vote to impeach and the resolution won’t make it to the Senate, said Cowden, who described the movement to remove Koskinen as “more politics than substance.”

“That’s usually not something that someone’s going to consider an impeachable offense,” he said. “He’s running an agency that made mistakes. This is not typically the kind of thing that you’re going to say is some moral turpitude issue or something that makes somebody unfit for his office.”

Before government leaders testify before Congress, lower-level staff members will brief and prepare them, Cowden said. He proposed Koskinen was told emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner were not recoverable before he testified.

“When you testify to A, and B happened, it’s possible to make a conclusion that he knew that his testimony was false because what happened later shows it was inaccurate,” Cowden said. “It’s not the same as saying that somebody knew his testimony was false when he said it.”

One success, multiple failures at impeachment

The typical first step for impeachment is asking that the President to remove the agency leader.

In July, Chaffetz and 51 members of Congress sent President Barack Obama a letter asking that the President to dismiss Koskinen, but the White House did not respond.

“A lot of times that works,” Cowden said. “A lot of times when people in Congress are calling for the President to remove somebody for something, that’s enough for the person to submit their resignation or for the President to ask for it.”

There are few precedents for an impeachment of an agency leader like Koskinen. William Belknap, former Secretary of War, was the first — and only — cabinet member or agency leader who was impeached. He resigned before he could be acquitted in 1876.

Other attempts to impeach federal officials proved less successful. Resolutions to remove former Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013 and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy in September died in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) compared the impeachment resolution to House investigations on Planned Parenthood and Benghazi.

“There is zero evidence that Commissioner Koskinen engaged in these acts — to the contrary, the IRS has now spent $20 million and 160,000 employee hours cooperating with this misguided investigation with no evidence of any political targeting,” Cummings said in a statement Oct. 27. “This ridiculous resolution will demonstrate nothing but the Republican obsession with diving into investigative rabbit holes that waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars while having absolutely no positive impact on a single American.”

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