WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The outgoing head of the Internal Revenue Service provided little help on Friday to lawmakers investigating who at the tax-collection agency was responsible for targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
As Congress kicked off the first of several investigations into a scandal that has put President Barack Obama on the defensive, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller said he could not say who had come up with the idea to single out conservative groups for intense scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
“I don’t have names for you,” Miller told the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.
Miller, who was ousted by Obama on Wednesday and will leave his post by June, apologized for the IRS’s actions. But his appearance was unlikely to satisfy Republicans who have accused the Democratic administration of targeting political foes - even though a Treasury Department review found no evidence of that in the IRS scandal, and said that poor management was to blame.
Miller denied that IRS agents targeted conservative groups based on ideology. He added that he had not misled Congress even though he had not notified lawmakers when he learned in May 2012 about the agency’s “inappropriate” conduct in reviewing conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.
Without identifying lower-level IRS employees involved, Miller initially said that one employee had been disciplined because of the scandal, then later said two had been disciplined.
He asked budget-cutting Republicans to give his agency more funds to beef up tax enforcement at the IRS, suggesting that the agency’s difficulty in handling waves of applications by tax-exempt groups had been a factor in grouping conservative organizations for review.
Miller sometimes seemed defiant, as he grimaced and threw up his hands while answering questions.
At one point, Miller said he did not think the IRS had broken any laws when it drew up its targeting list - a response that elicited “wow” from Republicans on the committee.
The scandal has angered lawmakers in both parties, but Miller’s appearance appeared to further inflame Republicans who see it as a symptom of a federal government that has grown too large and is overly intrusive into Americans’ lives.
“Is this still America?” Republican Representative Kevin Brady of Texas asked.
‘FOOLISH MISTAKES WERE MADE’
Tea Party groups investigated by the agency say they were asked to provide social-media posts and lists of books they read. The questioning in some cases took nearly three years, preventing some groups from participating in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
“I think what happened here is that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient,” Miller said.
The Treasury watchdog’s report released this week did not identify individuals in the IRS’s Washington headquarters or its Cincinnati field office who were responsible for coming up with the criteria used to single out conservative groups.
Republicans have vowed to find out who was involved, but Miller did not provide much of a road map.
In one particularly combative exchange, Miller said he had asked IRS senior technical adviser Nancy Marks which agency employees were behind the targeting, but he said he did not remember whom Marks identified as a responsible party.
Republicans accused him of dodging their questions.
“I‘m hearing, ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember, I don’t recall, I don’t believe,’ ” said Representative Dave Reichert of Washington. “You don’t even know who investigated the case, but yet you say it was investigated.”
The IRS has seen the number of groups applying for 501(c)4 status double in the wake of a January 2010 Supreme Court decision that loosened campaign-finance rules at a time when it has struggled to monitor existing tax-exempt groups.
That status allows groups to keep their donor lists secret while engaging in limited political activity. Political campaigns, by contrast, must make their donors lists public.
Several Democrats on the committee said the IRS needed to take a hard look at those applications to ensure that political groups do not exploit the tax code to shroud political activities in secrecy.
Miller said the IRS needs clearer guidance and more examiners to process the applications in a fair and timely manner.
The top Democrat on the committee, Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, warned Republicans not to turn the investigation into a partisan witch hunt. Levin said, however, that the IRS official who made the scandal public last week, Lois Lerner, should be fired for misleading Congress because she did not inform lawmakers about the problem sooner.
“That is wholly unacceptable, and one of the reasons we believe Ms. Lerner should be relieved of her duty,” Levin said.
Two other congressional committees will hold IRS hearings next week. One of those panels, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, plans to question five lower-level IRS employees over whether they played a role in the targeting of conservative groups.
Additional reporting by Karey Van Hall, Andy Sullivan and Susan Heavey; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by David Lindsey and Jackie Frank