Washington hearing theater: IRS probe

 Lois Lerner is sworn in before testifying to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee May 22, in Washington, DC.

Story highlights

  • No. 2 Justice Department official testifies at House hearing on scandal
  • James Cole said the department couldn't provide details of its criminal probe
  • Republicans expressed frustration that no charges had yet been filed
  • The IRS is under investigation over singling out political groups for extra scrutiny
Lawmakers scolded and shouted and lectured.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole responded dozens of times the same way at a House hearing on Thursday: The Justice Department can't provide details of its ongoing criminal investigation into whether IRS employees broke the law in unfairly singling out specific political groups for extra scrutiny.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who led the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing, and others on the panel wanted to know why after 14 months prosecutors haven't filed charges.
Cole acknowledged the investigation is now examining the circumstances of missing emails, and a destroyed hard-drive, from former IRS official Lois Lerner.
He told lawmakers the Justice Department investigation has other ways to retrieve emails that Lerner sent, because they can gather records from those who received them.
Cole said the Justice Department didn't know about the lost emails until the issue became public in June, when the IRS notified Congress. He also said investigators would look the delay in notification.
GOP lawmakers were angry that the Justice Department continues to say the investigation is ongoing even after media reports, including from CNN, said that federal investigators so far have found no prosecutable crime in the case.
Cole said such reports are premature. "No decisions have been made on this case," he said.
Democrats on the panel defended the department and served up questions to Cole to help him make his point.
For an investigation such as this one, 14 months and more is "normal," Cole said.
For much of the hearing Cole stuck to versions of the same response:
- "With all due respect we don't talk about the investigative steps."
- "Don't want to sound like a broken record congressman, but I'm not at liberty to discuss non-public information."
When asked how many people have been interviewed or subpoenaed: "I don't know an exact number, and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
Increasingly irritated, Rep. Paul Gosar reminded Cole that he was a dentist not a lawyer, and tried to grill him over comments in February by President Barack Obama.
The President told Fox News in an interview aired before the Super Bowl that he believed the IRS scandal resulted from "boneheaded" decisions by a few people but that so far there was "not even a smidgeon of corruption" found.
Gosar asked Cole to define what a "smidgeon" was. After several prods from Gosar, Cole said "smidgeon" means "small."
The hearing ended with lawmakers not getting any significant new information.
In congressional hearings, often, that's not the point.