J. Russell George paused for just a moment before he took his seat at the witness table. He wanted to take it all in. The Treasury inspector general whose audit of the IRS had set off a national firestorm had been in this very room before—three decades earlier.
That was back when George was a precocious teenager who had worked his way onto the staff of then-Sen. Bob Dole, the powerful Republican chairman of the vaunted Finance Committee. Then, he’d sorted mail and made carbon copies. Now, he was about to testify before the same panel, to present the findings of an explosive audit that found wayward tax agents who had targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
“I could never have dreamed [about this] as a 17, 18-year-old,” George said in a wide-ranging interview with National Journal, one of his first since the audit. “It’s kind of moving for me in that regard.”
Two heads have already rolled in the scandal. One of them, the outgoing acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, was seated next to George. Pictures of the two of them, their right hands raised, taking the oath, ran in papers across the nation after the scandal’s first congressional hearing last week.
All the attention was new, but George has operated in these halls of power his entire career. He worked for Dole, and then in President George H.W. Bush’s White House. In between, he attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1988 alongside a young Michelle Obama (then Michelle Robinson).
They weren’t in the same section—the academic groupings that Harvard uses to divide its students—but George said they traveled in some of the same social circles, including the Black Law Students Association.
“I think he actually dated Michelle at one point,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, who worked with George when he was staff director for a House oversight subcommittee in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“That is overstating it,” George said. But the two students did socialize in group settings. “Michelle was a lovely person, and down to earth,” he said. “…The BLSA went out for pizza; we would go out together.”
He paused, for a beat. “Don’t get me in trouble,” George said.