The debate about whether to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is unlikely to come to a quick resolution after a House hearing Wednesday in which some Republicans asked the IRS to provide more information to Congress.
Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia opened the hearing by calling the allegations against Koskinen “serious” and saying that the committee has “meticulously poured through thousands of pages of information” on the matter. But his plans for how or whether to proceed on an impeachment resolution filed against Koskinen were still unclear after the nearly four-hour session.
The allegations stem from Koskinen's handling of the IRS response to a congressional inquiry into whether the agency applied extra scrutiny to conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Proponents of impeachment say Koskinen disregarded a congressional subpoena for documents related to the matter by allowing evidence to be destroyed under his watch, and that Koskinen provided false and misleading testimony to Congress.
Koskinen told the Judiciary Committee that he responded to congressional inquiries “honestly and in good faith as events unfolded” but admitted that some emails that Congress requested were accidentally destroyed.
“The truth is we did not succeed in preserving all of the information requested and some of my testimony later proved mistaken,” the commissioner said. “I regret both of those failings.”
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Judiciary member and chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus that has been leading the impeachment effort, told Roll Call that Koskinen's admission that backup tapes that were under subpoena were destroyed and that he made false statements to Congress represented “pretty compelling” evidence against him.
What's the Status of the IRS Commissioner Impeachment Debate?
Wednesday’s hearing was the first time that Koskinen admitted that he made a mistake and formally corrected the congressional record of past misstatements, Jordan said.
Jordan noted that the Freedom Caucus agreed last week not to move forward with the privileged resolution to impeach Koskinen and force a floor vote before the November election, which he also said is not his preferred next step.
“What would really help is we have a vote in committee,” Jordan said. “I think we could win a vote in committee.”
Goodlatte has not said whether he will hold a vote on the matter, Jordan said. Asked how long the Freedom Caucus would wait before acting on its own, Jordan responded, “Don’t know.”
Goodlatte’s questioning of Koskinen about whether he tried to ensure that the IRS was turning over all the requested information and to assert that the proper documentation was being preserved while the information was processed indicates that the chairman — at a minimum — finds Koskinen to have failed at some management duties.
However, Goodlatte offered no indication on whether he believes there is a case for impeachment. Ultimately, the majority of House Republicans would like the Judiciary Committee to offer its assessment on the matter before the chamber votes.
The information that Goodlatte and a few other Republicans requested during the hearing could be a means to making that determination, but it could also be a strategy to avoid having to make a decision.
Goodlatte asked Koskinen to provide any written communication he or anyone else at the IRS made instructing employees to preserve records responsive to congressional subpoenas.
South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, told Koskinen he wanted to know who at the IRS he relied on for counsel that led to him misinforming Congress about the status of evidence preservation and production. He also asked Koskinen to ensure he has provided all information to Congress that he wants lawmakers to consider as they decide what action, if any, to take in response to the allegations against him.
“Whenever the record is complete, that’s when we have to make the decision,” Gowdy said.
Goodlatte concluded the hearing by noting that members have five days to submit additional questions or submit evidence into the record, telling Koskinen it would be in his interest to respond to those questions promptly.
What all that practically means is that the House Republicans who pushed for a hearing in the interest of due process will have a reason to not take further action until the requested information comes in, which would almost certainly be after Congress adjourns until after the November election.
While Republicans on the Judiciary panel grilled Koskinen, mostly about the destruction of the backup tapes, Democrats defended him and called the hearing a “sham. ” They argued that the hearing was not an impeachment hearing as it broke from the traditional process in which the House passes a resolution asking Judiciary to begin proceedings under which it would hold hearings with witnesses for both the prosecution and defense.
“I believe an apology is owed to you,” Democratic Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee of Texas said to Koskinen, noting her belief that there are “no grounds for impeachment.”
The Democrats’ questioning of Koskinen also frequently delved into a sideshow about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump allegedly misusing funds from his charitable foundation for personal expenses and not releasing his tax returns.
Koskinen, who has hired personal counsel to help him fight the allegations, told reporters after the hearing that if the House were to move forward with a floor vote on impeachment, it would still be skirting due process.
“The fact that I’ve given my five minutes and answered a lot of questions is not exactly what the due process history has been for impeachments,” he said.
Several Republicans told Koskinen that the impeachment resolution should not have been needed, because he should have resigned.
Koskinen said both during the hearing and to reporters afterward that he does not plan to give into such calls because he doesn’t believe the facts merit resignation. He added that he’s concerned about the precedent that would set if he were pressured to step down, saying that would encourage members of Congress in the future to threaten impeachment or censure for officials they disagree with or don’t like.
“That threat — if this becomes a precedent — is what’s going to discourage people coming out of the private sector, as I did, who want to do public service,” Koskinen told reporters.
The commissioner added that people would think twice about putting their careers and names at risk if they could be impeached or censured for the smallest of reasons.
Koskinen said he was retired before he accepted the nomination to be IRS commissioner and that he plans to return to retirement after his term is up in November 2017, so he is not worried about the impeachment effort impacting his career.
“In terms of my reputation, I think, increasingly, people understand that there’s not a lot of merit to this case,” he said. “And I think ultimately that if the issue gets closed appropriately that my reputation won’t be affected.”