(The Root) — If you have followed any of the Internal Revenue Service scandal (hopefully here at The Root), you may have noticed two things: Three congressional hearings have uncovered exactly nothing relevant; and the wearer of the white hat, for once, is a black man.
J. Russell George, a graduate of Howard University, is the Treasury Department inspector general who ignited the controversy by blowing the whistle on the IRS's targeted scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
So far, George's 48-page audit has led to the firings of the top two IRS officials and administrative leave for another and immediate reforms. It has also breathed new life into conservative rhetoric about governmental abuses of power under President Obama.
Oh, and George went out with Michelle Obama when they were students at Harvard Law School.
They dated? "That is overstating it," George told the National Journal. He explained that through the Black Law Students Association, he'd gotten to know the former Michelle Robinson:
"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.
At 49, George has spent most of his career in the federal government, but this is his first turn in the spotlight.
It's difficult to exaggerate the challenges of his role as watchdog of the IRS. George relies on a staff of fewer than 800 to help him find and disclose fraud, abuse and waste at one of the largest governmental organizations in the world, with some 100,000 employees.
Central actors in big Washington scandals are subjected to intense scrutiny that exposes some and elevates others, but George's findings have held up under pressure. The audit recommended reforms at the IRS that Obama wants adopted immediately.
Appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, George had to answer criticism for not informing lawmakers of his initial findings. George explained that he's required to do so when conducting an investigation, but not for an audit.
He also cleverly turned it back on the often loose-lipped lawmakers, rightly suggesting that they or their aides may have leaked his findings to the media: "As you, I'm sure, are aware, many times when information is conveyed to the Hill, it is sometimes not retained [on] the Hill."
Here are three more facts working in George's favor:
1. Credibility with Republicans: He came up the ranks as a staffer for Republicans in the House and Senate, starting as a 17-year-old unpaid aide to Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. He also worked for the first President Bush as a lawyer in the Office of Management and Budget. He was appointed to his position in 2004 by the second President Bush.
2. Knowledge of the job: As staff director for a House oversight subcommittee, he oversaw the implementation of IRS reforms that created the job he currently holds.
3. Equal-opportunity watchdog: He's sure to disappoint some GOP friends with his expected review of nonprofits with 501(c)(4) tax exemptions, a category dominated by conservative groups since 2010. Many 501(c)(4)s solely pursue political causes, in violation of the law requiring them to "primarily" promote social welfare. These groups spent more money on TV ads in the 2012 presidential race than any other independent group.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.