Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that there is still a chance the government would file criminal charges against Internal Revenue Service employees who targeted tea party groups for special scrutiny, disputing press reports that the criminal probe into the tax agency has already decided the behavior didn't rise to the level of a crime.
Mr. Holder defended his department's investigation into the IRS, saying it's being run by career employees and is free from political taint -- even though one key lawyer involved was a major political donor to President Obama's campaigns.
But his words didn't assuage Republicans, who said he should appoint a special prosecutor who could elevate the investigation beyond the realm of politics. They also said they are stunned that the probe has lasted eight months and some key tea party activists still haven't been interviewed.
"Two hundred and eighty days have passed and many, if not all, of the victims have not even been interviewed," said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. "Two hundred and eighty days have passed and apparently the anger and outrage that both the president and you expressed has utterly disappeared."
After an internal auditor reported in May that the IRS was improperly targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, Mr. Holder ordered his department to conduct a criminal investigation.
Eight months later, there have been no indictments and House Republicans have begun looking into the Justice Department itself.
On Tuesday, House investigators sent a letter asking Barbara Bosserman, the lawyer involved in the investigation who is also an Obama donor, to testify at a hearing next week.
"With your history of extensive financial and personal support for the president and the Democratic Party, your involvement in the administration's investigation raises the appearance of a substantial and material conflict of interest," Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who is heading a subcommittee conducting the investigation, said in the letter, which was seen by The Washington Times.
Mr. Jordan and full Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, have identified Ms. Bosserman as the leader of the Justice Department's investigation.
Department officials had never contradicted that claim, but Mr. Holder said Wednesday that was an inaccurate characterization of her role. He said Ms. Bosserman is from the department's civil division, but elements of the FBI and the Justice Department's public integrity and criminal divisions also are involved and the criminal division is taking the lead.
He defended all of those involved.
"I have confidence in the career people at the FBI and the other investigative agencies to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation, and that's what I would expect of them. And that is why matters like this take as long as they do," he said.
Mr. Holder refused to discuss the status of the investigation, but he denied a published report that the investigation concluded there were no criminal acts in the targeting.
"All the options that we have are on the table," the attorney general said.
Ms. Bosserman didn't reply directly to an email seeking comment from The Times but forwarded it to the press office, which said the department will respond directly to the committee's request for her to testify.
The IRS targeting and the criminal investigation remain controversial on Capitol Hill, where Republicans say the administration tried to silence dissent by refusing to approve applications for nonprofit status from conservative groups. The internal IRS audit found some groups had waited for more than three years for approval.
The tax agency blamed a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that gave more leeway for groups to engage in politics. The IRS said it was having trouble weeding out political activities, which is why it delayed applications and asked questions it now acknowledges were intrusive.
Late last year, the tax agency issued rules that it says will prevent confusion by cracking down on what constitutes political activity. But many groups objected, saying it was an effort to stifle their rights to free speech.
Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between Mr. Issa and Mr. Jordan on the one hand, and the Justice Department has grown more pointed.
In a Jan. 24 letter, the Justice Department bristled at the accusations, calling the questions about Ms. Bosserman "inappropriate and unfounded."
"Your decision to impugn the integrity of a career attorney raises serious concerns," Principal Deputy Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik wrote. "Targeting career attorneys in this manner could plainly have a chilling effect on the valid exercise by federal employees of their basic right to participate in the political process."
Mr. Jordan, in his letter to Ms. Bosserman this week, said the Justice Department was wrong to accuse the Republicans of "targeting," saying it suggests an equivalence between Mr. Issa and Mr. Jordan on the one hand, and the IRS targeting of conservative groups on the other hand.
"His deliberate choice of this word not only insults the victims who were truly targeted by the IRS, but it further undermines the integrity of the administration's IRS investigation," Mr. Jordan said.
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