House hearing on IRS commissioner boils down to ‘no evidence’

As hearings to consider impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen move forward, two opposing narratives emerge regarding criminal intent, or lack thereof.

The arguments on both sides of a preliminary hearing that could potentially lead to the impeachment of John Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, came down to the inability of each side to prove the other wrong. Lawmakers fought to impose a narrative, either coincidence or conspiracy, over the sequence of events that started with the IRS targeting scandal in 2013.

Republican lawmakers, including the two witnesses at the hearing, argued that there is no evidence that Koskinen attempted to comply with congressional subpoenas or made a concerted effort to unearth missing evidence, and that his negligence is grounds for impeachment.

“We can find, nor can [the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration], based on the report, no proactive evidence that the commissioner did anything proactively to actually recover those tapes from the source of which they were destroyed,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, testifying at the May 24 hearing.

The arguments of the Republican lawmakers revolved primarily around the timeline of Koskinen’s testimony, including his assurances to Congress that every email had been preserved three weeks after backup tapes containing relevant emails had been destroyed, and allegations that the IRS neglected to pursue multiple avenues of investigation in recovering those emails.

“They call it an accident; I call it a series of unfortunate coincidences. I think it’s outrageous for anybody to think that this was a coincidence. … I hope that we can get to the bottom of this, of what Mr. Koskinen knew and when he knew it,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), after comparing the situation to Watergate.

Democratic lawmakers argued that multiple independent investigations, including those of the TIGTA and the Department of Justice, found no evidence of any wrongdoing. They said that Koskinen acted in good faith, and was misinformed at the time of his testimonies.

“I do not see any proof here … to suggest that commissioner Koskinen had any personal knowledge of the facts and the occurrences,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) dismissed the conspiracy theories and said that Congress has better things to do with its time.

“We’re here to consider an impeachment proceeding … where a Republican-appointed inspector general concluded that the underlying act that we should all be concerned about was accidental, not intentional,” he said. “But we then have a theory … that the IRS commissioner subsequently came before Congress to conceal something that itself, while incompetent, wasn’t criminal. … I just think that this is, respectfully, a remedy in search of a problem.”

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, presented the specific allegations against Koskinen.

“On his watch, volumes of information crucial to the investigation into the IRS targeting scandal were destroyed,” he said. “Before the tapes were destroyed, congressional demands, including subpoenas for information about the IRS targeting scandal went unanswered. Koskinen provided misleading testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concerning IRS efforts to provide information to Congress.”

Koskinen declined an invitation to testify at the May 24 hearing, saying he was not provided enough notice to prepare. He did submit a formal statement rebutting each of the allegations and concluding that impeachment is too drastic a measure.

“While the allegations raised by some members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are serious and relate to acknowledged errors made by the IRS, the Constitution reserves the use of impeachment for ‘treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors.’ None of my actions relating to the issues above, viewed in light of all the facts, come close to that level,” the statement said.

The statement was not entered into the formal record, however, due to objections from Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas).

Multiple Democratic lawmakers quoted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who spoke recently about the impeachment efforts, and said that there was no chance that Koskinen would be impeached.

“We can have our disagreements with him, but that doesn’t mean there’s an impeachable offense,” Hatch said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) objected to the hearing in an official statement, referring to “baseless Republican attacks on the IRS commissioner.” He referenced key points in the investigations by the TIGTA and DoJ, noting that these investigations found no evidence of wrongdoing on Koskinen’s part. He also questioned why those who conducted the investigations were not invited to testify.

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