WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress was not told that conservative tea party groups were being inappropriately targeted by the U.S. tax agency, even after the Internal Revenue Service's acting chief had been briefed on the matter.
The agency's failure to inform Congress was likely to give Republicans another weapon to use against President Barack Obama, who has been besieged by accusations of government overreach in several mounting scandals just a few months into his second term.
The IRS has apologized for what it acknowledged was "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status. In some cases, the IRS acknowledged, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors.
The agency blamed low-level employees in a Cincinnati office, saying no high-level officials were aware.
Acting IRS chief Steven Miller was first informed on May, 3, 2012, that applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra scrutiny, the IRS said Monday.
At least twice after the briefing, Miller wrote letters to members of Congress to explain the process of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status without disclosing that tea party groups had been targeted. On July 25, 2012, Miller testified before the House of Representatives Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, but again did not mention the additional scrutiny — despite being asked about it.
At the hearing, Republican Congressman Kenny Marchant told Miller that some politically active tax-exempt groups in his district had complained about being harassed.
Earlier, Republican Congressman Charles Boustany had raised concerns with the IRS about complaints that tea party groups were being harassed. Boustany specifically mentioned tea party groups in his inquiry.
In a June 15, 2012, letter to Boustany, Miller did not mention that in 2011, agents used materials that included a list of words to watch for, such as "tea party" and "patriot."
In an opinion piece in Tuesday's editions of USA Today, Miller conceded that the agency demonstrated "a lack of sensitivity to the implications of some of the decisions that were made." He said screening of advocacy groups is "factually complex, and it's challenging to separate out political issues from those involving education or social welfare."
Miller's article, however, did not address why he did not inform Congress after he was briefed.
On Monday Obama said he first learned about the tax targeting issue from news reports on Friday. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House counsel's office was alerted the week of April 22 that the inspector general was finishing a report concerning the IRS office in Cincinnati. But, he said, the counsel's office did not get the report and the president did not learn the focus until Friday.
"If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it," Obama said Monday at a press conference.
Republicans are trying to link the scandal to the administration's response to the September attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador, for which they have hammered Obama ever since. They now say it's another example of government overreach, and point to emails disclosed Friday that show senior administration officials pushed for references to prior warnings and al-Qaida to be deleted from the talking points used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack.
Republicans insist that the Obama administration misled Congress and the American people in the immediate aftermath of the attack, trying to play down an act of terrorism that would reflect poorly on Obama weeks before the 2012 presidential election. Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to exploit a tragedy for political gain.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Jim Abrams and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.
Follow Stephen Ohlemacher on Twitter: http://twitter.com/stephenatap
Miller's op-ed, however, did not address why he did not inform Congress after he was briefed.