A once obscure former Justice Department Tax Division attorney has become the newest face of the House Oversight Committee probe of Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of conservative groups - with the department’s head of public affairs now being accused of trying to coordinate leaks to the press about him with panel Democrats.
Andrew Strelka, who worked as a presidential management fellow for then-IRS official Lois Lerner from 2008 to 2010, is wanted by committee Republicans for questioning.
But the Justice Department hasn’t obliged, which prompted panel member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to accuse the department of “conspiring with Mr. Strelka to prevent the American people from learning the truth” in a Sept. 3 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Then, if that weren’t enough for the department to handle, Office of Public Affairs Director Brian Fallon apparently dialed the wrong number last Friday and ended up speaking with Frederick Hill, the communications director for the committee’s GOP majority.
As The Hill newspaper described it:
Apparently thinking he had reached the office of Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), Fallon said the department wanted congressional staffers to get documents to selected reporters so that officials could comment on them “before the majority” did.
The documents in question concerned Strelka, The Hill reported.
Seeking Andrew Strelka (Hint: Try Google)
If Strelka were allowed to talk - which he is not - he might describe his recent notoriety as surreal.
His image has been displayed on Fox News. Conservative media have accused the DOJ of “hiding” Strelka. ”Missing Person Alert! Where is IRS Scandal Figure Andrew Strelka?” read a recent headline in the website Newsbusters.
Strelka’s problem: After he joined the Tax Division, Strelka represented the IRS in a 2010 civil lawsuit filed by a group called Z Street, a self-described Zionist organization that alleged its First Amendment rights had been violated by extra scrutiny given its application for tax-exempt status. (In May, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., allowed the lawsuit to proceed over the DOJ’s objections.)
Emails obtained by the committee show that Strelka had a friendly relationship with Lerner, then director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Rulings & Agreements Division. Lerner has asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to refuse to testify before the House about her treatment of conservative organizations.
Did Strelka have a conflict of interest?
In an Aug. 25 letter to Holder, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jordan described Strelka’s invovlment in the Z Street lawsuit as “very troubling.”
They cited a March 17, 2022 email from IRS manager Ronald Shoemaker to Strelka and 13 others at the IRS to “[b]e on the lookout for a tea party case.” Z Street filed its lawsuit seven months later.
The House Republicans asked Justice to make Strelka available for a transcribed interview with committee investigators.
Jordan followed up with his Sept. 3 letter to Holder accusing the DOJ of obstructing its probe. “The department’s efforts to prevent the committee from learning Mr. Strelka’s whereabouts suggest the department has cause for keeping him from speaking with the committee,” Jordan said in the letter.
That letter produced the “Missing Person Alert!” and the Fox News segment, in which Republican election-law attorney Cleta Mitchell was interviewed. “They’re trying to hide him, and I think for a good reason. He knows a lot,” Mitchell said.
But Strelka isn’t missing. A simple Google search leads to his LinkedIn profile showing that he now works at Miller & Chevalier Chartered, a Washington, D.C., law firm.
An attempt last week to contact Strelka at Miller & Chevalier resulted in being put on hold for several minutes by the receptionist, who then directed Main Justice to Strelka’s voice mail. A message left for Strelka was answered by Fallon, who emailed this statement : “As the Chairman’s staff is already aware, the committee’s request to speak with Mr. Strelka is being fielded by the Department. The Department will be responding to the committee’s request promptly.”
But now Fallon himself is part of the story.
On Monday, Issa wrote to Holder to complain that Fallon’s call was a “deliberate attempt to influence the course of a congressional investigation,” according to The Hill.
The newspaper also provided some rich color about the call. (Fallon acknowledged to the Capitol Hill newspaper that he’d spoken with Hill last Friday.)
After the Issa staffer told Fallon that the Oversight staff would have to examine those documents first, “the line went silent, and Fallon placed the call on hold for three minutes,” the newspaper reported. Fallon returned to the call “audibly shaken,” according to Issa’s letter, The Hill reported.
Then, Fallon reportedly said there had been a “change in plans,” and that no documents would be released, and the reason he was calling was to seek to improve the department’s relationship with Oversight Republicans.
“There is nothing inappropriate about department staff having conversations with both the majority and minority staff as it prepares responses to formal inquiries,” Fallon told The Hill in a statement. “That includes conversations between the spokespeople for the department and the committee.”
As for Hill, Fallon told the newspaper that he gathered he “won’t be interested in having coffee.”
Fallon responded to a request from Main Justice for comment on Tuesday but could not be immediately reached when Main Justice tried to contact him later that evening.
Anonymous no more
In addition to Strelka, the Oversight investigation is dragging all sorts of usually anonymous Justice Department employees into public view.
In May, Richard Pilger, chief of the Election Crimes Branch, and Public Integrity Section chief Jack Smith, were required to give transcribed interviews to committee investigators. It is rare for line prosecutors who are not in the “front office” to appear before Congress.
Also in May, Jordan demanded at an Oversight panel hearing whether then-acting Criminal Division head David O’Neil knew a Public Integrity Section attorney named J.P. Cooney, whom Jordan said he understood was working on the department’s probe of the IRS exempt organizations division. O’Neil confessed he didn’t know Cooney, prompting Jordan to scold him and renew the Republicans’ calls for appointment of a special prosecutor.
In addition, committee Republicans want to question Nicole Siegel, an attorney-adviser in the department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, who also had a past working with Lerner in the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division and had worked for ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising organization.
“As an attorney in the Office of Legislative Affairs, Siegel is in a position to exert influence over the Department’s response to congressional oversight of the Department’s interactions with Lerner and the IRS,” Issa and Jordan wrote Holder on Aug. 25. “Her experience with the IRS and her work with a partisan campaign organization could create the appearance of a conflict with the Department’s willingness to be frank and forthcoming with Congress.”