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IRS Staffer: 'What I Did Was Not Targeting'

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (right) speaks with the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, earlier this month, during a hearing on IRS conference spending.
Charles Dharapak
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (right) speaks with the committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, earlier this month, during a hearing on IRS conference spending.

Another interview with a key IRS employee, another oblique connection to Washington, D.C., and yet still no explosive revelations in the scandal surrounding the agency's targeting of Tea Party groups.

That, it seems, was precisely the point of Rep. Elijah Cummings' decision to release 205 pages of redacted interview transcripts Tuesday (here and here).

Although the name of the "screening group" manager was blacked out, NPR has confirmed it is John Shafer, a longtime IRS employee who supervised workers doing initial screenings of applications for tax-exempt status in the Cincinnati field office.

"I believe releasing this transcript serves the best interest of Congress and the American people by ensuring that there is an accurate and fair picture of the management challenges facing the IRS and that recommendations for legislative reform are appropriately crafted to address the specific problems identified as a result of our oversight efforts," said Cummings, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee, in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, the committee's chairman.

Issa, a California Republican, shot back with a statement saying the release of this transcript could potentially harm the committee's investigation.

"I am deeply disappointed that Ranking Member Cummings has decided to broadly disseminate and post online a 205 page transcript that will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress," said Issa.

What's so special about Shafer's interview?

Cummings says it "debunks conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases."

For the Maryland Democrat, it certainly can't hurt that Shafer describes himself as a "conservative Republican," and also says the elevating of Tea Party cases for further review started with him, rather than someone higher up the chain.

But much like transcripts of other interviews viewed by NPR, this lengthy interview reveals just a tiny piece of the ongoing investigation.

/ Released by House Oversight Committee Democrats
Released by House Oversight Committee Democrats

How It All Started

As Shafer describes it, his team of agents does an initial screening of the approximately 70,000 applications for tax-exempt status the IRS receives each year. Some are marked for approval, while others that are missing information or have other issues are sent along to agents who will review those cases.

In February 2010, according to Shafer, an agent whose name has been redacted came to him with an application from a Tea Party group.

"[Name redacted] was an agent who worked for me and he came to my office," said Shafer in the transcribed interview with a bipartisan group of investigators. "And he was asking guidance concerning a case that had been assigned to him, and I believe his comment at that point in time to me was that, 'I can't really close this case. I'm going to send it to inventory.' But because of media attention that he had seen, he had concerns about this being a high-profile case."

Shafer said he agreed it should be elevated, so he sent it to his direct supervisors who then sent it on to an office of tax lawyers in a Washington, D.C., office called Exempt Organizations Technical.

"[Name redacted] came back and said, yes, EO Technical wants to see this case, then 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.

A Bureaucratic Maze

As it turns out, the IRS is a maze of divisions and offices with opaque-sounding names. Shafer appears to have been a cog in the machine.

Investigators asked him about the development of the BOLO (or "be on the lookout") notice that told agents to flag Tea Party files. Shafer said he didn't know much about it. Investigators asked him what happened to the applications after they were identified as Tea Party cases. He said he didn't know. As he explained more than once: "My function, again, was to look at these initial cases with a span of a few days and put them in a proper bucket and just go on with my work. Whatever went on after I bucketed these cases, it was what it was. I was not intimately involved with any of that," said Shafer.

But he did make it clear the initial elevation of the case was his idea, and that it had nothing to do with partisan politics. He said the goal was simply to treat similar groups fairly and consistently.

/ Released by House Oversight Committee Democrats
Released by House Oversight Committee Democrats

In fact, he told investigators he didn't think the term "targeting" was accurate.

"I'm not in a position to discuss anybody else's intention but my own, and I know that what I did was not targeting," he said.

Ultimately, the Tea Party cases experienced long waits and treatment that the IRS Inspector General deemed inappropriate, but how that happened isn't clear from Shafer's testimony.

"At this point in the investigation, not one witness who has appeared before the Committee has identified any involvement by any White House officials in the identification or screening of Tea Party applicants for tax exempt status, and the Committee has obtained no documents indicating any such involvement," said Cummings in his letter to Issa.

Issa, for his part, says Cummings is just trying to obstruct the oversight process. And so the fight continues.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.