WASHINGTON — The chief of the IRS fended off Republican demands Wednesday that he should lose his job, telling the House Judiciary Committee that he’d made statements about missing emails that later proved wrong but had done nothing to merit impeachment.
At a four-and-one-half hour hearing on whether to oust him, John Koskinen repeatedly said he’d cooperated fully with congressional investigators probing why his agency — before he joined it — subjected tea party groups seeking tax exemptions to excessive scrutiny. Conservatives leading a campaign-year effort to remove him said Koskinen has headed an agency that destroyed emails investigators wanted and he should pay the price.
“When you destroy documents that are under subpoena, somebody’s got to be held accountable for that. And that starts with you,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of another committee that has had a long-running investigation of the IRS’ treatment of conservative organizations.
Koskinen told lawmakers that when he testified in June 2014 that no documents had been destroyed since congressional investigations began, he didn’t know that three months earlier, IRS workers had mistakenly destroyed backup tapes bearing thousands of emails.
“In retrospect, I would have been better advised to say, ‘To the best of my knowledge,'” Koskinen told the Judiciary panel. He added later, “No one lied, no one covered up.”
With Republicans divided and GOP leaders offering no support, the impeachment effort is ensured of an eventual defeat. Last week, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus agreed to not force a House impeachment vote until after the November elections — even though it seemed likely to lose — in exchange for Wednesday’s hearing.
The conservatives say Koskinen obstructed congressional investigations by lying, ignoring subpoenas and heading an agency that destroyed documentation.
Investigations by the Justice Department and the IRS’ independent inspector general have found no evidence that that Koskinen or the agency purposely destroyed evidence or that its actions against the conservative groups were politically motivated. The inspector general concluded that the backup tapes were mistakenly erased by IRS workers in Martinsburg, W.Va.
“The old midnight shift guys in Martinsburg excuse,” scoffed Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, leader of the Freedom Caucus.
Koskinen and Democrats have criticized the impeachment effort, saying Republicans are short-circuiting the House’s usual practice of having a formal, in-depth process. Democratic lawmakers called it a political circus that was distracting from problems like the recent killings of unarmed blacks by police officers and of law enforcement officers.
“We keep grandstanding while America is burning,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.
Several Democrats tried turning the tables on Republicans by asking Koskinen questions about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s taxes and charitable foundation.
Asked whether people under IRS audit are free to release their returns or IRS letters informing them they are being audited, Koskinen said they are. Trump has said he’s not released his returns because he is being audited.
After the hearing, Jordan said he was hoping the Judiciary committee would hold an additional hearing on Koskinen or vote on impeaching him.
“We have a better chance of winning the vote on the floor if we can actually get a vote out of the Judiciary committee,” Jordan said in an interview.
Judiciary panel Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., declined to answer reporters’ questions about what the next steps would be.
In May 2013, the IRS conceded that during the 2010 and 2012 elections, it subjected conservative groups seeking tax exemptions to excessively harsh examinations. Many groups with those tax exemptions play major roles in political campaigns, and they are not required to reveal donors.