There are only two political appointees at the sprawling Internal Revenue Service, and an important one has yet to be heard from about the inappropriate scrutiny given to certain conservative organizations that were seeking tax-exempt status.
With Congress back from summer recess, Republican lawmakers plan to call the IRS chief counsel, William J. Wilkins, to testify this fall about what he knew and when he knew it. He hasn’t yet talked publicly about decisions made by the scandal-plagued agency’s Exempt Organizations division.
Because his post is just one of two political jobs out of 90,000 at the IRS – the other is the commissioner – some critics draw a line, real or imagined, between Wilkins and the targeting of tea-party organizations and conservative groups. Conservative groups have made circumstantial allegations, trying to link him to a polemic pastor or claiming without proof that he was involved in creating criteria used to hold up tea-party applications.
In a widely circulated Wall Street Journal piece this summer, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, declared flatly that, “The IRS scandal was connected . . . to the office of the chief counsel.” Naming Wilkins, she added that “the chief counsel of the IRS is one of only two Obama political appointees in the entire agency.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has notified the IRS that he wants Wilkins to appear before the panel.
As a top official appointed by President Barack Obama, Wilkins is a potentially valuable witness partly because many months into the IRS scandal there remains a soft and shifting timetable of who knew what and when within the administration and the IRS.
A Harvard Law School graduate and the top IRS lawyer since early 2009, Wilkins was among the senior people at the agency at the time someone decided to start applying extra scrutiny to conservative organizations.
In a rare interview, he described an IRS management structure in which information flowed freely in both directions. “There are a lot of ways to push tasks down into the organization and to have the results filter back up,” he told the American Bar Association’s Section of Taxation NewsQuarterly in 2010.
Wilkins also described an open-door relationship with then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman, a Bush administration appointee who’s been skewered by GOP lawmakers for claiming a faulty memory during testimony.
“We just handle issues as they come up. His office is right down the hall,” Wilkins told the quarterly.
The IRS didn’t make Wilkins available to McClatchy for an interview. Through a spokesman, the agency declined comment on whether Wilkins had discussed the scrutiny of conservative groups with Steve Miller, the acting commissioner fired by President Barack Obama on May 15, or Lois Lerner, who headed the Exempt Organizations division and refused on May 22 to answer questions from Congress, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights.
The tax-exemption questions remain “under investigation, and it is inappropriate to comment further,” the IRS said.
Asked whether Wilkins had ever discussed the special scrutiny of conservative groups with the White House or Treasury Department before the scandal broke, the agency clarified that “he doesn’t recall any conversations along those lines.”
So who is William Wilkins?
The chief counsel brought to the job a pedigree in both legal and political circles. The year before he joined the IRS, he was elected the chairman of the American Bar Association’s influential Section of Taxation, the nation’s largest group for tax lawyers.
At the time, he also headed the tax practice of the powerhouse law firm WilmerHale. It’s a landing strip for many powerful Democratic lawmakers when they’ve left the public spotlight. Former Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, for example, joined the firm in June to open a planned Denver office.
Some conservative publications cite a Treasury Department audit that said IRS officials had met with the chief counsel when creating new criteria by which conservative applications would be scrutinized.
The IRS has said that Wilkins hadn’t met with IRS staffers and that the report meant the Office of Chief Counsel, which employs about 1,600 lawyers. The agency also said Wilkins had offered to sit for a private interview with congressional investigators but nobody took him up on it, something lawmakers acknowledge.
Some conservative critics allege that Wilkins defended, for free, the controversial former Obama pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons threatened Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“Chief IRS counsel bailed Jeremiah Wright’s church out of IRS probe in 2008,” said a recent story posted on Teaparty.org.
WilmerHale actually defended the United Church of Christ, whose tax-exempt status was being reviewed for revocation by the Bush administration’s IRS because Obama spoke to the church’s annual conference in 2007. Wright headed Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest congregations in the denomination, but not the broader church.
WilmerHale’s team wasn’t led by Wilkins, but rather by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman. Wilkins was part of the team that beat back the IRS threat, however.
“My experience with Bill Wilkins was that his motivations were at all times professional, and not political,” said Donald Clark, the general counsel for the United Church of Christ.
Conservatives groups also note Wilkin’s past ties to Democrats, as the staff director of the Senate Finance Committee in the 1980s and as a campaign contributor. “IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins a Big Donor and Loyal Democrat,” the conservative Weekly Standard said.
Wilkins gave $24,000 through his law firm to Democrats or Democratic fundraisers from 1990 to 2008, according to the website OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political donations. In 2001, he also gave $1,000 to Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley and $1,000 to the Congressional Majority Committee, which supported Republican candidates.
As the Senate Finance Committee staff director in the mid-’80s, Wilkins worked for the late Lloyd Bentsen, a Texas Democrat who was a vice presidential candidate in 1988 and the treasury secretary from 1993 to 1994. Republicans who worked with Wilkins at the time don’t remember him as particularly political.
“I recall him to be trustworthy, thoughtful and extremely knowledgeable about the tax code,” said G. William Hoagland, Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee from 1986 to 2003. “Those were days when Republican and Democratic staffs talked things out, listened to the other side’s point of view. . . . I do not recall him to have been terribly partisan, but rather more of an academic-type tax person."
Eugene Steuerle, a budget and tax official in Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Department, remembers Wilkins that way, too.
“I just remember him as being professional and knowledgeable,” Steuerle said. “I think he’s a superb public servant.”
One thing that even Wilkins’ detractors probably don’t know is that he is, or at least was, the lead singer of a tax-themed band, according to the interview with the tax quarterly.
“The tax system is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to targets for parody,” he quipped in remarks that confirmed his love of song and now seem prophetic. “There is never any shortage.”
By Kevin G. Hall
McClatchy Washington Bureau