People in Washington received information about the IRS's improper targeting of Tea Party groups in July 2010, significantly earlier than has been reported previously. That sentence is a loaded one, one that can be interpreted as damning evidence of an administration-led conspiracy. But there are a few big caveats buried within it — including one about where that sentence came from.

The revelation stems from a Reuters story published this morning, centering around Elizabeth Hofacre, an official with the agency's tax-exempt division in Cincinnati who spoke with investigators from the House Oversight Committee. That July, about four months after staffers in the division began flagging applications for tax-exempt status based on words like "Tea Party" and "9/12," Hofacre sent information about it to our nation's capital. But how many people saw it isn't clear. See, Hofacre sent the information as an attachment in an email to too many people. Reuters:

[Hofacre] was asked to summarize her initial findings in a spreadsheet and notify a small group of colleagues, including some staff in the Washington tax-exempt unit. However, she sent her email to a larger number of people in Washington by accident.

"Everybody in D.C. got it by mistake," Hofacre said in the transcripts. She later clarified that she did not mean all officials but those in the IRS Exempt Organizations Rulings and Agreements unit.

It's possible that someone like Lois Lerner, who ran the division at the time, might have opened that attachment and seen the mention of using "Tea Party" as a flag — but it's probable that she didn't. Especially because Lerner has indicated previously, including to the Inspector General who audited the practice, that she didn't find out until a year later, at which point she ended the practice. Maybe some other official in the office opened the attachment he or she was supposed to receive and noticed the improper behavior, and then hid it. But there's no evidence that happened.

For the IRS scandal to do damage to the president (which, so far, it hasn't), Republicans need to link the agency's improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups as high up in the administration as possible. Since April, when Lerner apologized for the activity and blamed staffers in Cincinnati, there's been a concerted push to link the decision-making to Washington.

Which prompts a brief linguistic aside. We use the words "Washington" and "D.C." to connote a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts. "D.C." can mean the government, or it can mean the administration or it can mean the city or it can mean something more esoteric. It's a blurry line that we generally are able to parse based on what's being talked about.

In this case, though, that blurry distinction is being used for political advantage. Breitbart.com writes that "Cincinnati IRS Staffers Point Finger at D.C." Fox Nation trumpets a headline from the Daily Mail: "IRS Employee: D.C. Told Us to Target Tea Party." Both of which have a clear intent: bring the behavior closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Interestingly, both of those articles came out before the Reuters story. That's because revelations about what Hofacre told the Oversight Committee have been trickling out all week. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had a report on those interviews as well. The Reuters report includes the sentence, "Transcripts of the interviews, reviewed by Reuters on Thursday… ;" the Journal story, "Transcripts of the interviews, viewed Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal…" Excerpts were available even before that: On Sunday, the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, spoke about the interviews on CNN and posted damning excerpts on the committee's website.

Even the most suggestive transcript excerpt, which came out in the Journal's review, ends in Cincinnati. In it, another staffer in the Ohio office, Gary Muthert, describes how he "started gathering applications in March 2010, at the request of an unidentified local manager, who allegedly told him that 'Washington, D.C., wanted some cases.'" Eventually, that local manager told him to use "Tea Party" as an indicator for what files to send.

That deserves more investigation. The Oversight Committee knows who that manager is; the Journal notes that his name "was redacted in the transcripts." Meaning that the Committee is probably trying to interview with him and determine who in Washington, if anyone, asked him to pull the files together. By not releasing the name, the committee assures that they won't get scooped by the press.

This is politics. Issa and other opponents of the president want to keep generating headlines about how D.C. was involved in the Tea Party scandal, leveraging that vague sense of "D.C." There may yet be a smoking gun that links the Cincinnati office's behavior with decision-makers in the administration. An errant email attachment — which, keep in mind, was sent after the improper targeting began — isn't it. If Oversight does find something suggestive, rest assured that it will be leaked to the press, in pieces, all next week.

Photo: Rep. Issa. (AP)