By Andy Sullivan and Kim Dixon
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, brandishes a binder during a hearing in which the acting head of the IRS testified.
WASHINGTON — The former head of the Internal Revenue Service angered Republican lawmakers yesterday by resisting their demands that he identify who at the tax-collection agency had inappropriately chosen conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
But during the first hearing into a growing IRS scandal that could preoccupy Washington for months, Republicans did learn that a top official in President Barack Obama’s administration knew that the IRS was looking into such scrutiny by the tax agency nearly a year ago.
That detail could encourage Republicans’ efforts to link the scandal to the White House as the administration faces a series of setbacks that threaten to derail Obama’s second-term priorities, which include revamping immigration laws and reaching a budget deal with Republicans.
Yesterday’s hearing was dominated by lawmakers’ grilling of former IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who provided few clear answers while apologizing for the extensive questioning and years-long delays that many conservative groups have experienced after applying for tax-exempt status.
Miller, who was fired by Obama on Wednesday, said the overly aggressive scrutiny of such groups was the result of mismanagement, not partisan politics.
“I think what happened here is that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient,” said Miller, who will leave his post next week and be replaced by Daniel Werfel, a budget specialist in the administration.Miller said he did not know who had come up with the idea to single out groups that appeared to be politically conservative for intense reviews of whether they qualified to be tax-exempt.
He said that although the added scrutiny was wrong, he did not think that IRS employees had broken any laws.
That drew the ire of Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, as did Miller’s shrugs when lawmakers pressed him about why he had not told Congress about the probe even though he learned about it a year ago.
“This is offensive, to hear this testimony,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y.Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, a member of the panel, listed examples of Ohio tea party members who were targets and what questions they were asked, including information about their activity on Facebook and Twitter, information about past and present employees and whether they or family members plan to run for office in the future. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he said. “This is unbelievable.”Tiberi also questioned why the IRS employee who was in charge of oversight of tax-exempt organizations had been promoted to oversee implementation of the health-care reform law. “She’s a superb civil servant, sir,” Miller replied, while acknowledging that the IRS had provided “horrible customer service.” Tiberi said afterward that Miller was “parsing his words carefully,” and not revealing much. He said he believed the investigation would go on for a while, and said it only will make those skeptical of the IRS more so.“It’s going to take some time to unravel this,” he said.The hearing did seem to yield some fruit for Republicans who are trying to cast the scrutiny of conservative tea party and “Patriot” groups as a political initiative encouraged by the Obama administration, a position the White House rejects.
Critics have hammered the White House this week on the IRS scandal, its handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records of Associated Press journalists in a criminal probe into intelligence leaks.
The Treasury Department’s internal watchdog, J. Russell George, told the House panel that Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, an Obama political appointee, learned nearly a year ago that a government watchdog was looking into inappropriate scrutiny by the IRS.
Two other congressional committees will hold IRS hearings next week.Jessica Wehrman of the Dispatch Washington bureau contributed to this story.