The administration official calling House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) office last week had an odd request.
Could the Justice Department get some help leaking information about the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups asked Brian Fallon, a top spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder.
Apparently thinking he had reached the office of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), Fallon said the department wanted congressional staffers to get documents to selected reporters so that officials could comment on them “before the majority” did.
After Issa spokesman Frederick Hill replied that Oversight Committee staffers would have to examine those documents first, the line went silent, and Fallon placed the call on hold for three minutes.
When he returned to the line, Fallon was “audibly shaken,” according to an account of the conversation that Issa recounts in a letter sent to Holder.
The Justice official then said there had been a “change in plans,” that no documents would be released on Friday and that the main reason for the call was to seek a thaw in relations between the department and Oversight Republicans.
Issa said it’s clear that the Justice official meant to call Democratic staff and argued the mix-up is proof that President Obama’s administration and Cummings have been collaborating to “prejudice the committee’s work through under-the-table coordination.”
"This highly partisan and combative approach to oversight by the department shows a disregard for the independent investigatory prerogatives of Congress and a deliberate attempt to influence the course of a congressional investigation," Issa wrote to Holder, adding that it was "unseemly" for the department to favor one party over the other when it came to sharing information.
The documents, Issa added in the letter, are about Andrew Strelka, a former Justice attorney that once worked for Lois Lerner, the ex-IRS official at the center of the Tea Party controversy.
In a statement to The Hill, Fallon suggested that there was nothing out of the ordinary about his conversation with Oversight Republicans.
“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 did not comment directly on whether aides to Cummings had ever held discussions with Justice officials similar to the conversation described in Issa’s letter.
Issa’s letter leaves some questions unanswered as well. The letter says that the Justice official asked for an Issa staffer by name before giving the pitch that was presumably intended for Cummings’s aides, raising the question of how much collaboration goes on between the Democrats and the administration. Issa added that the Justice official in question — Fallon — had never called his communications department before.
Still, the letter adds a new wrinkle to the IRS controversy, which started well over a year ago when Lerner apologized for the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
Congressional investigations into the IRS gained new intensity this year after the agency acknowledged it couldn’t find an untold number of Lerner’s emails between 2009 and 2011.
The IRS blamed that loss on Lerner’s computer crashing, and added Friday that it probably couldn’t find emails from another five staffers that dealt with tax-exempt applications from Tea Party groups.
Republicans have repeatedly accused the IRS of slow-walking their investigation into the agency, and the Justice Department of running a shoddy criminal investigation. Democrats say, even after 16 months, there’s no evidence that the IRS scrutiny was politically motivated.
Strelka, the lawyer at the center of Friday’s conversation, worked for Lerner before representing the IRS in a lawsuit filed by Z Street, a pro-Israel group.
Strelka was eventually removed from that case. But Issa and other Republicans say there’s a conflict of interest between his work at the IRS and Justice and have accused Justice of keeping them from interviewing Strelka.
In his letter, Issa asks Holder to detail how many times his aides have discussed matters with Oversight Democrats without the GOP’s involvement, and stressed that he didn’t buy the Justice official’s explanation that the purpose of Friday’s call was to open the lines of communication.
“Friday's misdirected request by the Justice Department underscores that the Obama Administration views the Committee's ranking minority member more as a collaborative partner in thwarting oversight than as an actual independent overseer of the federal government,” Hill said.