House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said Thursday he was told by IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig that the odds of selecting two Trump administration foes for rare and intrusive audits following their firings were like winning the lottery.
“He [Rettig] suggested that this conceivably could happen even in a random process. Without giving up details, he said there were times when 7, 7, 7, and 7 would come up if you were doing a lottery ticket or something like that,” Neal said.
The closed-door meeting of the chief House tax committee with Rettig and two top IRS deputies — including the IRS’s chief data and analytics officer — came in the wake of a New York Times story published last week about how former FBI officials James Comey and Andrew McCabe received the same kind of intensive audit after being fired by the Trump administration.
Speculation has been swirling that the audits were retaliation for disloyalty to former President Trump, given the slim odds that both former officers should have received the same type of audit administered to only a few thousand taxpayers of out millions each year.
“Let’s put it this way. If you knew that, let’s get on a plane and go to Vegas. Because these are pretty long odds. Right? I mean, that’s the reality,” Neal said.
“Because of the atmosphere I think we find ourselves in now, it’s really important to have a proper analysis of what happened,” he added.
Other Democrats expressed bewilderment at the probability of picking out both Comey and McCabe for rare audits, which are part of something called the National Research Program at the IRS.
Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said the odds were “as big as we thought they were” before repeating his call for Rettig to step down.
“The IRS needs new leadership now,” Pascrell said in a statement. “Americans have endured enough IRS catastrophes to last a lifetime. Mr. Rettig’s continued presence at the IRS will only deplete already flagging public confidence in our tax system.”
While lawmakers said following Thursday’s meeting that the odds Comey and McCabe should have both been picked out still seem minuscule, approximations offered by the IRS on Thursday are an improvement by orders of magnitude over the astronomically small estimates that fueled speculation after the story first broke.
“It’s more like one in 250,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said after meeting with Rettig and his deputies, “for the very top tier.”
“And I don’t know, I mean, they didn’t do the statistical analysis. They didn’t offer that. But they disputed that it was one-in-84-million or whatever the number was,” Kildee said.
Kildee characterized the IRS’s responses to lawmaker questions about the process that led to Comey and McCabe’s selection as “what you might expect — that it’s a completely objective, you know, query that produces a number of individuals subjected to this audit and that there was no interference.”
Kildee said that his own feeling was that “it’s either an incredible coincidence or something else.”
More definitive numbers and a more complete statistical analysis are expected to be included in an upcoming report on the matter by the Treasury inspector general’s office.
Democratic lawmakers said they expect the report soon.
“We haven’t seen the inspector general’s report, which I don’t expect will be that much longer,” Pascrell said after the meeting, adding he expects to see it within “the next couple of weeks.”
Other Democratic lawmakers not on the Ways and Means Committee seemed slightly more dubious that the sequential audits were a smoking gun for political retaliation at the IRS.
“It’s still a coincidence, but it’s closer to being one of those one-in-a-hundred coincidences rather than a one-in-a-billion coincidence. You have two individuals that went from government salary to independent contractor big money, and anybody who goes from A to B in that circumstance is closer to a 1 percent chance rather than a one-in-a-million chance of being selected for that audit,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a professional accountant and co-chairman of a congressional caucus on CPAs and accountants.
“We have an IG [Inspector General], and he’s going to look at this,” Sherman added. “There might need to be kind of a better system for reporting the possibility of, you know — you head the FBI, you’re selected for this audit, you’re on Trump’s enemies list. There ought to be a particular way you communicate that to the IG, who can then put it together with other people.”
Republicans agreed with Democrats that allegations of political targeting by the IRS must be investigated, calling attention to times when the IRS has been accused of treating conservative constituencies unfairly.
“Congress has an obligation to investigate accusations of misconduct by federal agencies. That’s especially true for the Internal Revenue Service, which has an incredibly disturbing history of abusing its power — whether it was targeting conservatives for their political beliefs under the Obama administration or leaking highly sensitive taxpayer information just last year,” Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said in a statement earlier this week.
Asked whether he thought the IRS was becoming politicized, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said, “It has been for a long time,” adding that “everything is political now.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Rettig and the IRS, which is also a point of frustration for Republicans over a leak of billionaires’ tax returns to the press in 2021, a Democratic House aide told The Hill that he didn’t think there was the political will to have Rettig removed.
“I don’t think either Republicans or Democrats have the appetite to boot him to the curb, even over this,” the aide said.
“In fact, there’s a decent chance he’ll be reappointed for the sole purpose that the administration has so many things on their plate that they think it would be easy lifting to put him back on and have him confirmed and not have to worry about it, as opposed to bringing in a fresh face that they have to vet, shop on Capitol Hill and then get through maybe even a Republican Senate next year. Whether that’s right or wrong, I think that’s their mindset,” the aide added.