Do you remember “The Planted question gambit backfires on IRS officials?”
Top tax officials tried an unusual strategy to break the news of their 3-year-old policy of targeting Tea Party groups.
House Ways and Means Committee member Mike Kelly, R-Pa., on Friday questions the ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service, Steven Miller.(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
WASHINGTON — It was an unusual way to deliver bad news, even in a town known for its selective leaks, Friday-night news dumps and wag-the-dog distractions.
The Internal Revenue Service, apparently determined to get out ahead of an inspector general report critical of its handling of tax exemptions for Tea Party groups, came up with a plan: Lois Lerner, the official responsible for the tax-exempt division, would publicly apologize in response to a question at the American Bar Association conference in Washington.
Details of the now-infamous planted question emerged Friday after acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller admitted the gambit under questioning from members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
It was the day after Lerner had testified to Congress last week, failing once again to disclose the extent of the Tea Party targeting even under direct questioning. The damning inspector general report would come out any day, and Lerner and Miller wanted to figure out a way to disclose the news publicly.
Miller testified about the thought process behind the release strategy Friday. “Now that the (inspector general) report was finalized, now that we knew all the facts, now that we had responded in writing and everything was done, did it make sense for us to start talking about this in public,” he said.
The plan, he said, was to simultaneously notify Congress, but that never happened.
After talking to Miller, Lerner called Celia Roady, a Washington tax lawyer whose office is immediately across Pennsylvania Avenue from the IRS headquarters. She also serves on the IRS Advisory Committee on Tax-Exempt and Government Entities.
Roady released this written statement late Friday explaining her role:
“On May 9, I received a call from Lois Lerner, who told me that she wanted to address an issue after her prepared remarks at the ABA Tax Section’s Exempt Organizations Committee Meeting, and asked if I would pose a question to her after her remarks. I agreed to do so, and she then gave me the question that I asked at the meeting the next day. We had no discussion thereafter on the topic of the question, nor had we spoken about any of this before I received her call. She did not tell me, and I did not know, how she would answer the question.”
And so that’s how it happened. Within minutes, the Associated Press reported her remarks with a one-line news alert: “WASHINGTON (AP) — IRS apologizes for inappropriately targeting conservative political groups in 2012 election.”
In a conference call with reporters later that day, Lerner emphasized that her apology came in response to a question.
“I was asked a question at the ABA meeting to give a status update of things that have been in the press” about the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups, she said. Asked why the IRS chose to make an apology that day, she said, “Someone asked me a question today, so I answered it.”
Members of Congress in both parties criticized what they called a “scheme” and a “manipulation.”
“I find it incredibly ironic. You know, on the one hand, you’re arguing today that the IRS is not corrupt. But the subtext of that is you’re saying, ‘Look, we’re just incompetent,’ ” said an exasperated Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., after one line of questioning on Roady’s involvement.
Communications professionals said it was a puzzling move that backfired and alienated members of Congress.
“It violates the golden rule of political crisis management — disclosing critical facts early,” said Nu Wexler, a former Democratic Hill staffer and vice president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications.
Lerner “had an opportunity to explain the full story in the May 8th hearing, and she passed. Members of Congress don’t like being misled, and that’s why two key House Democrats are now calling for her resignation,” Wexler said.
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