Chairmen Chaffetz and Jordan Request Information on the IRS’ “Special Project Team” Created in Connection to the Lois Lerner Investigation

Published: Jun 5, 2015

WASHINGTON—Today, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, and Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan, sent a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen requesting further information on the “special project team” established outside of the normal agency process to respond to congressional subpoenas and requests for information, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and other investigative requests relating to Lois Lerner. The existence of the “special project team” was revealed earlier this week in testimony to the Committee from Mary Howard Director of the Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure at the IRS.

“Ms. Howard’s testimony could explain the interminable delays related to the IRS’s responses to the Lerner requests.  In fact, the Committee has been waiting to receive all of Ms. Lerner’s emails for more than two years.  t has been almost a year since the IRS last produced documents to the Committee, and it is just now coming to light that the IRS Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure team was stripped of its ordinary responsibility to respond to the Lerner requests.  That information might never have come to light at all without Ms. Howard’s testimony, which had to be compelled through the issuance of a subpoena”.

Full text of the letter can be found below:

June 5, 2015
The Honorable John Koskinen
Commissioner
Internal Revenue Service
1111 Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC  20224

Dear Mr. Commissioner:

On June 3, 2015, Mary Howard, Director of the Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure section at the IRS, testified to the Committee that a “special project team” was responsible for responding to congressional subpoenas and requests for information, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and other investigative requests relating to Lois Lerner and other 501(c)(4) matters (collectively, “the Lerner requests”).  Ms. Howard testified that the Lerner requests did not go through the agency’s normal process for responding to requests.  She stated that the Lerner requests “did not land on my desk,” and that the Commissioner and the Chief Counsel were primarily responsible for responding to those requests.

In addition, Ms. Howard stated “we have never shared information with the White House” and “I can simply speak for the disclosure office and the FOIA process.  We do not interact with the White House.”  This statement is contrary to the Administration’s stated policy[1] and the practice of the four other agencies represented on the panel alongside Ms. Howard, as confirmed by their FOIA Officers.

Ms. Howard’s testimony revealed that the IRS engages in multiple deviations from standard FOIA processing practices.  Further, if Ms. Howard’s testimony is accurate, the IRS’s process for handling requests related to Lois Lerner and other 501(c)(4) matters may have involved considerations beyond those that are exempt in the Freedom of Information Act.  As you know, FOIA only allows executive branch agencies to withhold information pursuant to nine specific exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

Ms. Howard’s testimony could explain the interminable delays related to the IRS’s responses to the Lerner requests.  In fact, the Committee has been waiting to receive all of Ms. Lerner’s emails for more than two years.  It has been almost a year since the IRS last produced documents to the Committee, and it is just now coming to light that the IRS Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure team was stripped of its ordinary responsibility to respond to the Lerner requests.  That information might never have come to light at all without Ms. Howard’s testimony, which had to be compelled through the issuance of a subpoena.

So that we may better understand the IRS’s process for responding to the Lerner requests from Congress, please respond to the following as soon as possible, but no later than 5:00 p.m. on June 16, 2015:

1. Describe the process IRS followed when responding to the Congressional Lerner requests.  In what ways was this process different from the procedures for other requests. 

2. Identify those responsible for the decision to create the “special project team” that Ms. Howard described in her testimony 

3. Identify other instances where special project teams have been created to respond to FOIA requests at the IRS since 2010.

4. When was this special project team created and when was it disbanded?

5. Describe the purpose and responsibilities of the special project team.

6. Identify those who participated in the special project team.  Please note which of the team members or participants held overall responsibility for its activities.

7. Describe why the IRS departed from its standard procedure for processing the Lerner-related requests. 

8. Was the Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure section involved in responding to the Lerner requests?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

9. Please provide a detailed explanation of the standard review and approval process for the release of documents in response to FOIA requests. 

10. Under what, if any, circumstances does the IRS engage in intra-agency consultation or referral in the process of responding to FOIA requests?

11. Has the IRS sent documents responsive to congressional or FOIA requests to the White House for review?  If so, please identify which requests were reviewed by the White House.

12. With respect to the Lerner requests from the Committee, who reviews and authorizes the release of responsive documents?  Identify the IRS employees who are involved in the review and authorization process.  Also identify any individual outside of the IRS who reviews and authorizes the release of documents to the Committee. 

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the principal oversight committee of the House of Representatives and may at “any time” investigate “any matter” as set forth in House Rule X.

Please deliver your response to the Majority staff in room 2157 of the Rayburn House Office Building and the Minority staff in room 2471 of the Rayburn House Office Building.  The Committee prefers, if possible, to receive your response in electronic format. 

Sincerely,

Jason Chaffetz
Chairman
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Jim Jordan
Chairman
Subcommittee on Health Care, Benefits, and Administrative Rule