Tea Party supporters wear "Hold the Line" t-shirts as dozens rallied near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington
Tea party adherents wear "Hold the Line" T-shirts as dozens rallied near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington, July 27, 2011. Reuters

A former intern at the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati that has come under fire for targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status says supervisors there were most likely intimately aware of the behavior.

Lois Lerner, head of the IRS division that deals with tax-exempt groups, blamed low-level “line people in Cincinnati” for the “absolutely incorrect, insensitive and inappropriate” behavior during a conference held by the American Bar Association on Friday. But the former summer intern, who worked there two years ago, said in a phone interview that she was privy to the ways in which work got done at the office, and that knowledge of the practices could not have been limited to low-level workers.

“If anybody had known that was going on, the supervisors would have had to know also, because their offices were across from my cubicle,” she explained, painting a picture of the environment at the Cincinnati office. “It was a soundproof room, so I couldn’t hear them, but when they did an audit and had to be called with the documents and stuff, there had to be two people in there,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Cincinnati office was put in charge of applications for tax-exempt status about 10 years ago, and the former employee said that the practice there was for at least one person in a supervisory role to sit in on sensitive discussions.

“Say you got audited, you got called in to the office. You wouldn’t sit in there with just the CPA; there had to be two people and there would generally be a higher-up in there with them when they had all the papers spread out on the table,” she explained. “The supervisors had to know because the CPAs don’t go off and do things like that themselves. They don’t call people in and sit in there with them just themselves.”

She described the office culture as congenial but said employees mostly avoided political discussions. From what she knew about their political leanings, however, she's surprised the office is being criticized for targeting right-wing groups.

“Nothing political was ever discussed … As for anyone talking to me about political things, no,” she said, adding, “I know mostly IRS people are mainly Republican, that’s just how it usually goes. No, I never talked political stuff with any of them, and none of them discussed it either; they mostly discussed plain-Jane stuff.”

Earlier this week, letters to conservative groups requesting unusual amounts of “additional information” emerged bearing return addresses from El Monte and Laguna Niguel, Calif., as well as the national IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., exposing the fact that the scandal extended beyond the Cincinnati office initially blamed by Lerner.

Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing a wide range of conservative groups whose exempt-status applications have been stalled for as long as two years, agrees that the scope of the scandal is much wider than Lerner initially stated.

“That just shows you the magnitude of the situation,” Sekulow said. “They thought they were going to create their own narrative and blame it on lower-level Cincinnati employees, but that’s not going to happen.”