Internal Revenue Service officials have invoked a Watergate-era law designed to protect private citizens' tax returns to justify their refusal to turn over documents requested by the House Ways and Means Committee.
In its first official response to a May 14 bipartisan request from the committee for information and documents related to the agency's illegal harassment of conservative, evangelical and pro-Israel groups, the IRS told lawmakers on June 4 that Section 6103 of the federal tax code allows it to exempt itself from compliance with such congressional requests.
The provision originally was written during the Watergate scandal to protect U.S. citizens and shield their private tax records from prying government officials.
Committee chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., said in a statement that the committee will continue pressing the IRS for the requested documents and information.
"Congress is determined to get the facts of who was involved, when it occurred and why any America was ever targeted by the IRS based on their personal beliefs, and will pursue this investigation until we have answers to those questions," he said.
Ranking committee member Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., joined Camp in the May 14 request.
Ways and Means Committee staff have warned IRS officials that they are using the obscure provision to protect potentially illegal conduct by government employees or to withhold politically damaging information.
"Section 6103 must not be used by the IRS as a shield," a committee staffer said in an email to reporters. The agency's tactics raise "the question of whether the IRS will broadly apply section 6103 to avoid divulging politically hazardous or potentially embarrassing information."
The IRS has acknowledged to the committee that it has collected 646 gigabytes of electronically stored information, much of it encrypted. Each gigabyte represents about 100,000 pages, meaning the agency has accumulated nearly 64 million pages that could be tied to the scandal.
Richard Pollock is a member of the Washington Examiner Watchdog reporting staff. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.