What may have been a harmless photo opportunity with President Obama has turned into a public relations crisis for IRS Chief Counsel William J. Wilkins, who has become a top suspect for those convinced that the Service's mishandling of the exemption applications of politically conservative organizations was orchestrated by the White House.
On April 23, 2012, Wilkins, an Obama appointee, met with the president in the White House. Just two days later, the IRS Office of Chief Counsel provided additional comments on the draft guidance developed for the IRS's exempt organizations determinations unit in Cincinnati, according to the May 14 Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report that found that the IRS inappropriately used political criteria to flag exemption applications for extra review.
According to official White House visitor records, Wilkins met with the president at 4 pm on April 23 in the Roosevelt Room with about 13 other people. At around 5 pm, Obama, Wilkins, and 13 other presidential appointees from various agencies, including the departments of Interior, Defense, and Energy, took pictures in the Oval Office.
In a July 19 post on political consultant and talk radio host Dick Morris's blog, Morris and Eileen McGann mentioned the visit and suggested Wilkins might be "the latter-day G. Gordon Liddy," a key figure in the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon's resignation. The Daily Caller followed up July 22 with an article headlined "Embattled IRS Chief Counsel Met With Obama 2 Days Before Agency Changed Targeting Criteria." Neither account mentioned that the meeting was, at least in part, a photo op.
According to Neile Miller, who at the time was an appointee in the National Nuclear Security Administration and attended the meeting and photo op, the group was just a bunch of "random political appointees" from across the administration. "This was just a courtesy meeting where you get to go and talk about -- not agency-specific stuff -- but more kind of organization and management across the government," she told Tax Analysts.
Miller said the president addressed the group as a whole and didn't appear to have any serious one-on-ones, although she added that she would have no way of knowing whether Wilkins separately had another meeting with the president at that time. "He may well have done so. I wouldn't have any way of knowing that," she said.
Tax Analysts came across two photos from the meeting. The first, an official White House photo by Pete Souza, is available on the White House's photo stream hosted by the website Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/7161178860).
The second picture accompanied an article on The Smoking Gun website, which reported in June that hacker "Guccifer" accessed the photo via Miller's personal Facebook account and added a "Guccifer" logo above the president's head. (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/buster/guccifer-hacks-nuclear-agency-head-576324. Click the photo to enlarge.)
In both photos, Wilkins is standing at the far right.
Speculation that Wilkins was personally involved in the EO scandal gained steam when, at a July 18 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, committee Chair Darrell E. Issa, R-Calif., asked former IRS tax law specialist Carter Hull, who worked in the IRS National Office in Washington, whether Hull was "waiting on answers from chief counsel and Lois Lerner," former exempt organizations director in the IRS Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division, before providing guidance to lower-level IRS employees so that they could close Tea Party cases. Hull responded, "I was waiting on word from chief counsel as to how to proceed."
Issa later said that one of Hull's superiors in Washington told committee staff that Lerner sent him an e-mail saying that "these cases need to go through multi-tier review and they will eventually have to go to [Lerner's senior adviser] and the chief counsel's office." Issa asked Hull whether that was consistent with the instructions he received and whether that was unusual. Hull said, "Yes, that is unusual. . . . Oftentimes there is more than one reviewer, but multi-tiered is unusual."