IRS suspends head of unit caught up in targeting controversy

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The IRS has replaced the head of the office now under fire for improperly targeting conservative groups, a day after she invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions before a congressional committee.

Lois Lerner was suspended on Thursday from her job as head of the IRS office of exempt organizations, the unit that polices charities and other nonprofits that get tax-exempt status.

In an e-mail to agency employees, IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel said he had chosen Ken Corbin as Lerner’s replacement. Corbin, a 27-year agency employee, was a deputy director in the IRS division that processes tax returns. Werfel said Corbin’s experience and strong management background “make him an ideal choice to help lead the exempt organizations area through this difficult period.”

Werfel, a career budget analyst, was named last week by President Barack Obama to take over the agency. He replaced the previous acting commissioner, who was pushed out after the targeting became public.

“I have not done anything wrong,” Lerner said in an opening statement Wednesday to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.” But Lerner then declined to answer questions, prompting calls for her firing.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that the new head of the IRS asked Lerner to resign, but she refused. She then was placed on administrative leave.

“The IRS owes it to taxpayers to resolve her situation quickly,” said Grassley, a member of the senate Finance Committee, which oversees the IRS. “The agency needs to move on to fix the conditions that led to the targeting debacle. She shouldn’t be in limbo indefinitely on the taxpayers’ dime.”

An inspector general’s audit found that staff in a Cincinnati field office used terms like “Tea Party” and “Patriots” to select applications for extra scrutiny. Congress is investigating the IRS’ actions and the FBI has begun a criminal investigation.

The IRS did not respond to questions about Lerner’s departure, which was first reported by the National Review. Lerner’s attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A lawyer and career government employee, Lerner has spent 12 years at the IRS. The inspector general’s audit said the improper screening began in 2010, but that Lerner did not learn about it until more than a year later, in June 2011. She ordered the staff to stop using politically-charged terms — but other improper criteria surfaced again months later, the audit found.

J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, said Wednesday that senior IRS managers failed to follow up to make sure the process had been fixed.

“So it was mismanagement. It was a lack of fulfilling the responsibility that they have,” Russell said, testifying at the House oversight committee hearing.

In a written response to the Inspector General’s findings last November, Lerner said the screening language was not reviewed by senior IRS managers. Instead, she wrote, staff was looking for a way to identify nonprofit organizations that might be primarily focused on politics, which would be a violation of IRS rules.

“To the best of my knowledge, no individual or organization outside the IRS influenced the creation of these criteria,” Lerner wrote.

On Thursday, the top two senators on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations sent a letter to Werfel urging that Lerner be suspended.

“We believe that the immediate removal of Ms. Lerner from office would be a vital step in helping to restore public trust in the agency,” said the letter, signed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.

The chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said that committee lawyers believe that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment privilege when she gave a statement. She may be recalled for more questions, he said.