In an exclusive interview Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said interviews with workers in the Cincinnati IRS office show targeting of conservative groups was "a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters - and we're getting to proving it."
"My gut tells me that too many people knew this wrongdoing was going on before the election, and at least by some sort of convenient, benign neglect, allowed it to go on through the election," he said. "I'm not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening."
A bipartisan group of investigators from two House committees -- Ways and Means, and Government Reform and Oversight -- interviewed two front-line employees from the tax-exempt office last week.
One of the employees hit back against accusations that lower-level employees were responsible for the scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in 2010, telling congressional investigators that the Ohio employees were being "thrown underneath the bus."
A second "more senior" Cincinnati IRS employee said they began seeking other jobs when they were assigned to look out for applications from tea party groups, because they felt it was inappropriate.
According to excerpts released by the oversight committee, one of the employees said their supervisor told them the direction to single out conservative groups came from the Washington headquarters in March 2010.
By April, seven hard-copy versions of applications had been sent to Washington, the employee said. In addition, the employee said Washington had requested part of an application by two specific groups, though the excerpts do not disclose the names of those two groups.
Shortly after news of the scandal broke and IRS Commissioner Steven Miller announced his resignation, the IRS said two "rogue" employees in the agency's Cincinnati office were principally responsible for the "overly aggressive" handling of requests by groups with the words "tea party" and "patriot" in their names, a congressional source told CNN.
Issa's committee released only excerpts and not the full transcripts of the interviews, citing the fact that the investigation is ongoing. CNN asked for the full transcripts, but the committee did not agree to the request. CNN has not seen the full transcripts or the context of the questions and answers.
However, Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House oversight committee, described Issa's remarks based on the interviews as "reckless" and "unsubstantiated."
"So far, no witnesses who have appeared before the Committee have identified any IRS official in Washington DC who directed employees in Cincinnati to use 'tea party' or similar terms to screen applicants for extra scrutiny," Cummings said in a statement.
"Chairman Issa's reckless statements today are inconsistent with the findings of the Inspector General, who spent more than a year conducting his investigation," he continued.
"Rather than lobbing unsubstantiated conclusions on national television for political reasons, we need to work in a bipartisan way to follow the facts where they lead and ensure that the IG's recommendations are fully implemented."
Issa said the full transcripts would be made public, and he has also subpoenaed the administration for more documents that he says will support claims made in the employee interviews. "As we get those documents ... we will learn the whole truth," he said. The oversight committee later clarified that subpoenas have not been issued to the IRS.
For now, however, he has not said he has evidence to verify there was a direct link between Washington and the over-scrutinizing of tea party groups. But he points to the interview, in which one of the employees named an IRS attorney in Washington, D.C. (the name was redacted in the excerpts), who was heavily involved in the process of applying further scrutiny to conservative groups. The employee expressed frustration with the attorney's "micromanagement," according to the excerpts.
Citing the decision by IRS tax exempt director Lois Lerner to plead the Fifth in her recent congressional hearing appearance, Issa said "This is a problem that's coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters, and we're getting to proving it. We have 18 more transcribed interviews."
As the IRS began to disclose information about its admitted mistake, Lerner told reporters that the Cincinnati office, which handles the tax-exempt applications, was overwhelmed with applications in 2010 and began funneling documents from conservative groups into a file that called for further review as a "shortcut," chalking it up to more of a clerical error.
"It was an error in judgment and it wasn't appropriate," Lerner said May 10 on a conference call with reporters. "But that's what they did."
But two Democratic congressional sources involved in the IRS investigation told CNN's Dana Bash that Issa's characterization of the interviews is misleading.
Their impression from the Cincinnati employees was that the Washington connection the employees were referring to were tax attorney specialists. These individuals answer questions from the tax-exempt division in Ohio about what level of political activity is acceptable for 501(c)(4) status, the sources said.
The tax attorneys work in what is known as the EO Technical Unit--which is in Washington.
According to the sources, an employee identified a tea party case in February 2010 with a problem: The group had checked the box saying it engaged in political activity, but the line agent was not sure how much political activity was allowed for tax exempt status.
(IRS rules dictate that tax exempt groups are allowed to do some type of political advocacy as long as social welfare is their primary activity.)
The employee's question was sent up through the line to Washington, the sources said, where the tax attorney experts were asked to develop future guidance to answer that question, as multiple tea party groups were beginning to take shape in 2010.
The Democratic sources said that's why Washington asked for more cases, like in the example of the Cincinnati employee who was asked to send two specific cases. However, the sources maintained this was not when the actual targeting began, nor who did it. They're hoping to get more answers in interviews with two other employees next week.