Top IRS officials, whose agency was under investigation for targeting conservative groups, visited the Obama White House more than 100 times over two years while the probe was going on, far more often than in previous administrations and frequently enough that Republicans suspect White House officials knew about the targeting.
Lawmakers now investigating the Internal Revenue Service practice zeroed in on those nearly weekly White House meetings to determine whether an IRS official — or someone higher up in the administration — had approved the targeting and whether it was politically motivated.
The frequent meetings also raised questions about the White House's claims that it couldn't have instigated the targeting of conservative groups because it took a hands-off approach to the tax agency, going so far as to describe it as independent of the administration even though it's part of the Treasury Department.
"The IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that they're applying the laws in a nonpartisan way," President Obama said shortly after the targeting became public earlier this month.
Former Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman visited the White House 118 times between 2010 and 2011. Acting Director Steven Miller, who took over at the IRS in November, also made numerous visits to the White House, though variations in the spelling of his name in White House visitor logs makes it difficult to determine exactly how many times.
The frequent trips to the White House under Obama far outnumbered the times other administrations felt the need to meet with the IRS, according to Mark Everson, who led the IRS under former President George W. Bush. Everson said he remembers making only one trip to the White House between 2003 and 2007 and said he felt like he'd "moved to Siberia" because of the isolation.
"I fear the IRS is on a slippery slope as regards its traditional independence due to being so intertwined with a major domestic policy initiative like health care reform," Everson said.
Shulman said he couldn't remember why he went to the White House so frequently, though some of the visits were probably about the IRS' role in implementing Obama's health care reforms, he told a congressional committee. Logs show Shulman met with two West Wing officials working on health care.
"The IRS has a major role in the money flow," Shulman explained to Congress.
But while the health care-related visits were explained in the logs, many others included no explanation. Other sources said the IRS and White House were also talking at the time about an investigation into excessive IRS spending on employee conferences, travel and awards.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Shulman's frequent visits make it hard to believe that the IRS and White House never talked about the investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups, which was going on at the time — something the White House vigorously denies.
"In my view," Issa said, "it's hard to believe it didn't come up in passing."