WASHINGTON – The FBI is investigating potential civil rights violations at the Internal Revenue Service after the agency acknowledged the agency had singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
Other potential crimes include making false statements to authorities and violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities, Holder said.
"I can assure you and the American people that we will take a dispassionate view of this," Holder told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing Wednesday. "This will not be about parties, this will not be about ideological persuasions. Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable."
But, Holder said, it will take time to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing.
Holder announced a day earlier that the Justice department had opened a criminal investigation, joining three committees in Congress that are looking into the matter. As the investigation widened, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he had this question: "Who's going to jail over this scandal?"
"There are laws in place to prevent this type of abuse. Someone made a conscious decision to harass and to hold up these requests for tax exempt status," Boehner said. "I think we need to know who they are and whether they violated the law. Clearly someone violated the law."
Legal experts, however, said it could be difficult to prove that IRS officials or employees knowingly violated the civil rights of conservative groups. If there is a violation, the experts said, investigators can sometimes prove more easily that officials made false statements or obstructed justice in some other way.
"I think it's doubtful that any of these knuckleheads who engaged in the conduct that gave rise to this controversy knowingly believed that they were violating the law," said David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department lawyer. "But that remains to be seen. That's what investigations are for."
"It's more likely than not that," he said, "the conduct at issue here may constitute violations of IRS rules or standards or protocols or procedures but may fall short of what is necessary to constitute a criminal offense."
Even if IRS agents broke criminal laws in targeting conservative groups, investigators may have to prove they knowingly did it, a high standard, said Brian Galle, a former Justice Department lawyer who teaches law at Boston College.
"If the reason they were pursuing them was in order to punish them for their political activity, there might be a First Amendment concern there," Galle said. "On the other hand, if the reason that they were looking for tea party groups is because there had been press reports about this new group, the tea party, who was aimed primarily at getting more conservative people elected to office, then they were just responding to the evidence. It really depends on what their motives were."
Wednesday's hearing was the first of several in Congress that will focus on the issue.
The House Oversight Committee announced Wednesday that it would hold a hearing May 22, featuring Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax exempt organizations, and former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, whose five-year term ended in November.
The Senate Finance Committee announced a hearing for next Tuesday.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Friday, featuring the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, and the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, J. Russell George.
At Wednesday's hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Lerner misled him and his staff when they asked her about complaints from conservative groups that they were being harassed by the IRS.
"I know for a fact, Lois Lerner lied to me, she lied to our personal staff, she lied to committee staff, she lied in correspondence," Jordan said.
Lerner learned about the targeting on June 29, 2011, according to a report Tuesday by the inspector general.
The report said ineffective management at the IRS allowed agents to improperly target tea party and other conservative groups for more than 18 months.
The report said that while their applications for tax exempt status languished, tea party groups were asked a host of inappropriate questions, including: Who are your donors? What are the political affiliations of officers? What issues are important to the organization, and what are your positions on those issues? Will any officers in the group run for public office? Where do you work?
The IRS started targeting groups with "Tea Party," ''Patriots" or "9/12 Project" in their applications for tax exempt status in March 2010, the inspector general's report said. By August 2010, it was part of the written criteria used to flag groups for additional scrutiny.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Wednesday that no union employees had been disciplined, as far as she knew. She noted that the IG's report said agents were not motivated by political bias.
Kelley told The Associated Press that low-level workers could not have specifically targeted conservative groups for long without the approval of supervisors. However, she noted, there are many levels of supervisors at the IRS.
"No processes or procedures or anything like that would ever be done just by front-line employees without any management involvement," Kelley said. "That's just not how it operates."
Also Wednesday, the IRS released a list of 179 advocacy groups that had been approved for tax-exempt status as of May 9. The list includes both seemingly conservative and progressive groups, including the Nevada County Tea Party Patriots and Progress Texas. A total of 34 included the words "tea party" in their names.
"Progress Texas and the tea party strongly disagree on the role of government," said a statement from Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. "Yet, when we applied for tax-exempt status, Progress Texas received the same type of additional scrutiny that tea party groups are complaining about."
The IRS also pushed back against one aspect of the inspector general's report. The report said the chief counsel was briefed about conservative groups being targeted on Aug. 4, 2011.
The IRS, however, said in a statement that the meeting involved staff attorneys "several layers below" chief counsel William Wilkins.
"Wilkins did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year," the IRS statement said.