June 19, 2013 7:37:41 AM
WASHINGTON -- An Internal Revenue Service manager and self-described conservative Republican said the close scrutiny of tea party groups' tax forms originated in his Cincinnati IRS office and not in Washington, according to a full transcript of his interview by congressional investigators released Tuesday.
John Shafer, who oversaw a small group of IRS workers who screen applications for tax-exempt status, told the investigators that the initial tea party application was spotted by one of his workers in February 2010.
Shafer said he decided to send it to higher-ranking supervisors because it was unclear whether the group would qualify for the tax exemption and because of the media attention the conservative groups were garnering at the time.
Managers in the IRS' Exempt Organizations office in Washington ended up expressing interest in the case, he said. Shafer said it was normal to pay careful attention to such cases to make sure similar applications are treated the same way.
"This ends up to be a case that we want to make sure we're consistently going to look at, and that's where this started," Shafer said.
The transcript was released by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who had made public excerpts of the interview earlier this month. The full 205 pages provide new details of how the screening of conservative groups began but lack bombshell, damaging new revelations about involvement by top officials inside or outside the IRS.
The IRS has been under fire from the White House and members of both parties since May, when one of its officials publicly apologized for targeting conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status for close examination. President Barack Obama has replaced the agency's acting director and several other top IRS officials have stepped aside.
Several Republicans have said they believe the focus on conservative groups came from the White House. No direct ties to White House or any other top administration officials have yet to be publicly established in ongoing investigations by three congressional committees and the FBI.
Asked in the June 6 interview whether he believed the White House was behind the decision to target conservative groups, Shafer said: "I have no reason to believe that."
Shafer, a 21-year IRS veteran who told his questioners that he is a conservative Republican, said that after the IRS Exempt Organizations office in Washington expressed interest in the first tea party case, he decided to ask his screeners look for similar applications.
"Consistency, you know, is paramount in what we're doing, so that is a big factor in a decision to do this," he told the investigators. "Equally so was that this was identified by" the Exempt Organizations office "as something they felt was appropriately in their domain," he said.
That office was headed until recently by Lois Lerner, who revealed the targeting in a public apology last month that ignited the uproar over the IRS. She has been replaced and put on administrative leave.
Shafer said he told his screeners to look for similar cases but not to collect them simply because they had "tea party" in their name. One of those screeners, Gary Muthert, told congressional investigators in a separate interview that his supervisor told him to look for applicants with "tea party" in their name because Washington wanted them.
Cummings, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a letter to that panel's chairman that the testimony "debunks conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases."
While conceding that investigators have concluded that some IRS officials were aware of the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups, Cummings wrote, "These facts are a far cry from accusations of a conspiracy orchestrated by the White House to target the president's political enemies."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee chairman, said Cummings' release of the transcript "will serve as a road map for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress."
He criticized Cummings for declaring this month that it was time for Congress to move on from the probe and added, "Americans who think Congress should investigate IRS misconduct should be outraged by Mr. Cummings' efforts to obstruct needed oversight."
Cummings has complained that Issa has allowed reporters to view full transcripts of interviews committee investigators have conducted with some other IRS officials.