In a letter written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), Issa reveals there was an attempt to coordinate media spin regarding the IRS investigation between the DOJ and the staff of the Committee's Ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). How did Issa find out? A DOJ official in the Office of Public Affairs who thought he was calling Cummings’ office, mistakenly phoned Issa's office instead.
“I write with serious concerns stemming from a telephone call my staff received late on Friday afternoon from the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) about the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative tax-exempt applicants,” Issa states.
A senior OPA official—under the apparent mistaken belief he had called the staff of Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings—asked if the Committee would release Committee documents to the media so that the Department could publicly comment on the material. I am extremely troubled by this attempt to improperly coordinate the release of Committee documents with the Minority staff. This effort to preemptively release incomplete and selectively chosen information undermines the Department’s claims that it is responding in good faith.
The senior OPA official to whom Issa refers is Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Although his name was not mentioned in the letter, he confirmed that he made the call, which took place last Friday at 5:01 p.m. EST. As Issa indicates, he believes Fallon thought he was talking to members of Rep. Elijah Cummings staff.
(Fallon) then asked the Committee employee if the Committee would agree to release the material to selected reporters and thereby allow the Department an opportunity to publicly comment on it.
The subject of the conversation was attorney Andrew Strelka, who is defending IRS commissioner John Koskinen in litigation initiated by the pro-Israel group Z Street. Prior to his job in the DOJ’s civil trial section, Strelka worked for Lois Lerner in the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organizations Division—where Z Street’s alleged mistreatment occurred. Documents indicate Strelka was kept in the loop about the IRS’s targeting practices.
The Committee wants to talk to Strelka about this apparent conflict of interest, but the DOJ has refused the request, prompting a Sept. 3 letter to Holder from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) accusing the DOJ of “conspiring with Mr. Strelka to prevent the American people from learning the truth.”
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill, who took Fallon's call on a speaker phone in the presence of two other senior Committee employees, told him that Oversight Committee staffers would have to first examine the material—which is when Fallon apparently realized he was calling the office he was intending to undermine. After “abruptly” placing the call on hold for three minutes, an “audibly shaken” Fallon stated there would be a “change in plans,” with no effort to release the material early. Instead, the Department would “defer to the Chairman.”
Fallon then made an effort to cover his tracks, insisting that the reason for the call was to improve relations between the DOJ and Committee Republicans, who should “help one another.” When Fallon was subsequently asked if the material he had offered earlier would still be delivered Friday evening, he “attempted to walk back his earlier statement.”
Issa wasn’t buying any of it, noting that while communications are sometimes "erroneously shared,” he remains “disturbed to receive confirmation through this incident of apparently long-standing collaboration between the Obama Administration and Ranking Member Cummings’ staff to obfuscate and prejudice the Committee’s work through under-the-table communication.” Issa further insists that Fallon’s contention about improving relations with the Committee is “inconsistent” with the comments he made prior to putting the call on hold, and that it “strains credulity” to believe the DOJ would “seek to begin to improve relations via a telephone call between two individuals who had never spoken to each other before 5:01 p.m. on a Friday afternoon…”
In closing, Issa requested “a detailed explanation for each of the Department’s ex parte communications with the Minority Members or staff about Committee strategies for blocking and undermining oversight,” as well as "information about the number of times the Department has communicated with Minority staff to the exclusion of Majority staff." Issa wants a DOJ response, “no later than Monday September 15, 2014."
Those familiar with the stonewalling of the Holder-led DOJ know that such a request will likely be ignored. That reality was driven home once again on Tuesday when Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary. “The FBI and some other department components ... have refused our requests for various types of documents. As a result, a number of our reviews have been significantly impeded,” he revealed.
And while Horowitz said he appreciated the efforts of Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to intervene on behalf of the IG, such intervention is “inconsistent” with the “clear mandate” of the law and “compromises our independence.” Horowitz further noted that absent a resolution of the issue, “our struggles to access information relevant to our reviews in a timely manner continue to cause delays to our work and consume resources."
That same day, Fallon dismissed Issa’s allegations in an interview with The Hill, claiming there was “nothing out of the ordinary” about his conversation with GOP Oversight Committee members. “There is nothing inappropriate about department staff having conversations with both the majority and minority staff as it prepares responses to formal inquiries,” Fallon said. “That includes conversations between the spokespeople for the department and the committee.”
An Oversight Democratic staffer dodged a question about whether Cummings had ever had a conversation with the DOJ as described by Issa, insisting that the Representative and his staff “make their own independent decisions about when to release information to the public and do not improperly coordinate with any executive branch agency.”
That last bit is, quite simply, a lie. Last April emails released by the Oversight Committee revealed that Cummings and his staff communicated with the "executive branch agency" known as the IRS multiple times in 2012 and 2013, with regard to the conservative group True the Vote. The Committee documented communications between Cummings’ staffers and Lois Lerner—communications Cummings denied during a Subcommittee hearing the previous February. That would be the same Elijah Cummings who, despite being caught in a blatant lie, has labeled the ongoing investigation of the IRS as a “witch hunt,” and a waste of time and money.
On the same Friday Fallon made his call, the IRS revealed that emails from five other IRS workers involved in the investigation had also been lost. One of those workers was a senior aide to Lerner, and like the loss of her emails, the IRS blamed it on computer problems, further insisting there was no indication that any evidence had been deliberately destroyed. “To the contrary, the computer issues identified appear to be the same sorts of issues routinely experienced by employees within the IRS, in other government agencies and in the private sector,” the IRS said. “In addition, each of the five hard drive issues resulting in a probable loss of emails substantially predates the onset of the investigations in 2013.”
Thus the scandal with “not even a smidgeon of corruption” according to President Obama, takes another curious turn. Today the Democratically-controlled Senate is expected to release a report authored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. It will reportedly claim the 2013 report by J. Russell George, Treasury IG for Tax Administration concluding that conservative groups were targeted for additional scrutiny, is “unfair.” It will further allege the scandal amounts to nothing more than “mismanagement” by the IRS.
It’s going to be an uphill climb for Democrats. In a Fox poll taken in June, a whopping 76 percent of Americans, including 90 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of independents and 63 percent of Democrats said they believed that Lois Lerner’s emails were "deliberately destroyed" by the IRS. The gaffe committed by Fallon would be amusing were it not for the reality that it is yet another indication of the endemic corruption that infests the Obama administration, their Democrat colleagues and a willfully somnambulant mainstream media. All of them seemingly prefer to run interference for one of the most powerful agencies in government, than allow the truth, no matter how inconvenient, to come out.
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