WASHINGTON -- There are only two political appointees at the sprawling Internal Revenue Service, and an important one has yet to be heard from about the inappropriate scrutiny given to certain conservative organizations that were seeking tax-exempt status.
With Congress back from summer recess, Republican lawmakers plan to call the IRS chief counsel, William J. Wilkins, to testify this fall about what he knew and when he knew it. He hasn’t yet talked publicly about decisions made by the scandal-plagued agency’s Exempt Organizations division.
Because his post is just one of two political jobs out of 90,000 at the IRS – the other is the commissioner – some critics draw a line, real or imagined, between Wilkins and the targeting of tea-party organizations and conservative groups. Conservative groups have made circumstantial allegations, trying to link him to a polemic pastor or claiming without proof that he was involved in creating criteria used to hold up tea-party applications.
In a widely circulated Wall Street Journal piece this summer, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, declared flatly that, “The IRS scandal was connected . . . to the office of the chief counsel.” Naming Wilkins, she added that “the chief counsel of the IRS is one of only two Obama political appointees in the entire agency.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has notified the IRS that he wants Wilkins to appear before the panel.
As a top official appointed by President Barack Obama, Wilkins is a potentially valuable witness partly because many months into the IRS scandal there remains a soft and shifting timetable of who knew what and when within the administration and the IRS.
A Harvard Law School graduate and the top IRS lawyer since early 2009, Wilkins was among the senior people at the agency at the time someone decided to start applying extra scrutiny to conservative organizations.
In a rare interview, he described an IRS management structure in which information flowed freely in both directions. “There are a lot of ways to push tasks down into the organization and to have the results filter back up,” he told the American Bar Association’s Section of Taxation NewsQuarterly in 2010.
Wilkins also described an open-door relationship with then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, a Bush administration appointee who’s been skewered by GOP lawmakers for claiming a faulty memory during testimony.
“We just handle issues as they come up. His office is right down the hall,” Wilkins told the quarterly.
The IRS didn’t make Wilkins available to McClatchy for an interview. Through a spokesman, the agency declined comment on whether Wilkins had discussed the scrutiny of conservative groups with Steve Miller, the acting commissioner fired by President Barack Obama on May 15, or Lois Lerner, who headed the Exempt Organizations division and refused on May 22 to answer questions from Congress, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights.
The tax-exemption questions remain “under investigation, and it is inappropriate to comment further,” the IRS said.
Asked whether Wilkins had ever discussed the special scrutiny of conservative groups with the White House or Treasury Department before the scandal broke, the agency clarified that “he doesn’t recall any conversations along those lines.”