IRS Chief Koskinen Fights First Appointee Impeachment Since 1876

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Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen listens to a question from the press after speaking during a luncheon at the National Press Club March 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  • House Republicans seek Koskinen’s ouster over lost e-mails
  • Effort has failed to gain support from congressional leaders

Before he became the top U.S. tax collector and the target of an unprecedented Republican-led impeachment drive, John A. Koskinen majored in physics, guided the country through the “Y2K” problem and ran a foundation that promotes youth soccer.

Now, amid a three-year controversy over the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative groups, Koskinen, 76, is being re-educated in the exertion of forces, the limits of computer technology and -- according to a predecessor -- the sensation of being kicked around.

Impeachment is “the wrong symbol, the wrong act,” said Fred Goldberg, who served as IRS commissioner under Republican President George H.W. Bush. “‘It is both destructive and counterproductive.”

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear from legal scholars and a former prosecutor on whether impeachment-drive leaders can meet legal standards for impeaching Koskinen. The panel is not expected to vote on an actual impeachment resolution, and neither House nor Senate leaders have endorsed the impeachment push.

‘Held Accountable’

If it succeeded, Koskinen would be the first appointed executive-branch official impeached since 1876, the year Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. And he’d be the only such official below the level of cabinet secretary to receive that dubious distinction. Since 2013, Republicans have filed unsuccessful resolutions to impeach former Attorney General Eric Holder and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Regina McCarthy.

Impeachment would be well-deserved, says Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who says Koskinen misled Congress and failed to respond appropriately to congressional subpoenas amid investigations into whether the IRS unfairly targeted groups affiliated with the Tea Party movement.

“Congress needs to stand up for itself,” said Chaffetz, the leader of the impeachment drive, in an e-mailed statement. “Federal officials who provide false testimony and destroy evidence under subpoena must be held accountable.”

Impeachment Resolution

Koskinen came under attack almost immediately after President Barack Obama tapped him to lead the IRS beginning in December 2013. The agency was mired in fallout from allegations that it had targeted conservative and Tea Party groups seeking nonprofit status from 2010 through 2012. Koskinen is accused in an impeachment resolution of misleading Congress and failing to respond to congressional subpoenas for information about the case.

Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Chaffetz chairs, voted to censure Koskinen over similar claims. The 23-15 party line vote also recommended that his pension should be forfeited. Congressional censures of administration officials are rare, and generally would have no practical consequences. Neither the censure vote nor the impeachment resolution filed by Chaffetz and other Republicans has been promised a vote on the House floor.

Koskinen, who is on vacation, won’t attend Wednesday’s hearing. An IRS spokesman said that in attempt to save money for the agency, Koskinen is paying for his own lawyer, Reginald Brown of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP in Washington. Brown declined to discuss Koskinen’s case or how much his defense might cost. Koskinen is worth between $7.1 million and $27.4 million, according to a federal financial disclosure that he filed in 2013 after President Barack Obama nominated him to be IRS commissioner.

Through Brown, Koskinen declined to comment.

Crisis Specialist

Known as a crisis-management specialist adept at turning around struggling institutions, Koskinen spent almost two decades in upper management at the Palmieri Co., where he worked on corporate turnarounds and helped revive the non-rail assets of the then-bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Co. and helped overhaul the Teamsters union pension fund.

Afterward, Koskinen served in senior roles at Freddie Mac amid fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. He’s also a former deputy mayor of Washington and a former deputy director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Then-President Bill Clinton appointed him to chair a task force on the Y2K computer coding shift in 1999.

Lost E-mails

Now the one-time tech czar finds himself at the center of a controversy over e-mails. Specifically, Chaffetz and other Republicans contend that Koskinen, who took office in December 2013, failed to make sure that the IRS produced a full record of e-mails from Lois Lerner, the agency’s former director of exempt organizations. They also accuse him of misleading Congress about a hard-drive crash that lost some of Lerner’s e-mails -- as well as the subsequent destruction of backup tapes.

Despite pending congressional subpoenas for “all communications sent or received by Lois Lerner,” in March 2014, IRS employees in West Virginia magnetically erased 422 backup tapes, which eliminated as many as 24,000 of her e-mails. Subsequent investigations by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s inspector general found that the destruction was accidental.

Regardless, Koskinen testified in June 2014 that “since the start of this investigation, every e-mail has been preserved. Nothing has been destroyed.” He has said since that his testimony reflected his understanding at the time. “Every time I testified, I testified truthfully on what I knew,” he told reporters last month.

‘Gross Negligence’

“I would argue that he actively misled Congress,” Chaffetz said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month that was aimed at examining the allegations. Even if Koskinen didn’t lie intentionally, he should be subject to impeachment for failing to ensure the e-mails were preserved, Chaffetz said.

The U.S. constitution says the president, vice president “and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Witnesses set to testify at Wednesday’s hearing disagree on how that might apply to Koskinen’s case.

Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said impeachment is possible even without a finding of criminal conduct -- though he said he takes “a broader view on impeachment than some of my colleagues.”

Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said he doesn’t believe “gross negligence” constitutes grounds for impeachment. “My concern is that the impeachment resolution would be lowering the constitutional standard,” Gerhardt said. “It’s lower than what the framers of the constitution had in mind.”

‘Institutional Inertia’

A series of federal investigations into the IRS scandal faulted the agency for ineptness, but cleared it of criminal wrongdoing. In January 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had found no evidence of bias that would warrant criminal charges. The Justice Department in October ended its own probe, which found “substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment and institutional inertia,” but resulted in no charges.

“There wasn’t control of the document retention process,” said Mark Everson, who served as IRS commissioner from 2003 to 2007 under President George W. Bush. Complying with the congressional subpoenas “wasn’t handled correctly, and you can’t get out of that,” said Everson, who said he does not think impeachment is warranted.

‘Mutual Respect’

IRS commissioners weren’t always the most disliked bureaucrats at the most-hated agency. There used to be “greater mutual respect between the IRS and congressional committees,” said Mortimer Caplin, 99, who headed the agency during President John F. Kennedy’s administration.

Now, the rancor evident in the impeachment push makes it difficult for the administration and Congress to work together on important legislation -- including efforts to overhaul and streamline the federal tax code, said Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner under President Lyndon Johnson.

“The adversarial relationship makes tax reform almost impossible,” he said.

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