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IRS chief says targeting was foolish but not political

May 21, 2013 at 6:03 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- The departing chief of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service says he takes the blame for planting a question about the targeting of conservative political groups.

In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, Steven Miller, who resigned last week as acting director of the IRS in the wake of the scandal, said he takes responsibility for planting a question May 10 at an American Bar Association meeting that prompted senior tax official Lois Lerner to make a so-called "spontaneous" apology for targeting certain groups seeking tax exempt status.

Miller said IRS officials knew an audit by the treasury inspector general was about to be released and wanted to "get out an apology."

"Well, I will take responsibility for that," he said. "Obviously, the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said senior White House staff were made aware in April of the findings of the inspector general's report on the IRS targeting and had discussed how and when the information should be revealed. Carney, however, said the decision by the IRS to plant the question came from outside the White House, The Hill reported Tuesday.

Carney said Mark Childress, the White House deputy chief of staff, had spoken with Lerner, the IRS division head for tax-exempt groups, about the possibility that either Lerner would reveal the misconduct in a speech or that Miller could receive questions about the investigation in congressional testimony.

Carney said Tuesday he was confident that nobody in the White House was aware of the investigation before April 16.

Miller, in his testimony Tuesday, denied the agency's targeting of conservative groups was political. He offered an apology but described the targeting as "foolish mistakes" rather than partisanship.

"I do not believe that partisanship motivated the people who engaged in the practices described in the treasury inspector general's report. I've reviewed the report and I believe its conclusions are consistent with that," he said. "I think what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection. The listing described in the report, while intolerable, was a mistake and not an act of partisanship."

Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Russell George testified Tuesday the IRS used "inappropriate criteria" to target organizations based on their names and policy positions from 2010 to June 2011.

"We found that the first time executives from Washington, D.C., became aware of the use of these criteria was June 2011 with some executives not becoming aware of the criteria until April or May 2012," George said.

It was May 2012 before the criteria were finally changed to be consistent with laws and regulations, he said.

Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, a Bush appointee who led the agency from March 2008 to November 2012, was asked Tuesday why he failed to disclose his knowledge of the improper screening last year when he was first made aware in the spring of 2012 of a list that designated certain groups for extra scrutiny.

While he was aware the term "tea party" was a criterion, he said he didn't know what other words were on the list. He denied misleading Congress last year when he repeatedly said that there was no such targeting.

U.S. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, took Shulman to task for failing to disclose what he knew to Congress last year.

"You should have corrected the record and you should have done it long before today," Hatch said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the IRS has "lost the public's trust."

"The American people have every right to be outraged," Baucus said. "Targeting groups based on their political views is not only inappropriate, it is intolerable. We need to understand how and why this targeting occurred. We need to know who was involved and who was responsible. We need to install new safeguards to ensure this targeting never happens again."

The Senate panel has demanded the IRS provide documents about possible White House involvement in or knowledge of the targeting.

The panel has sent a letter demanding the IRS provide "documents relating to communications between any and all IRS employees and any and all White House employees, including, but not limited to, the president, regarding the targeting."

The document also demanded the identity "by name, grade and position title" of "every IRS supervisor, IRS manager or other IRS employee who became aware that any individual in the White House or Treasury Department became aware of any improper targeting."

The lawmakers gave the IRS until May 31 to answer all 41 questions.

Shulman and George are to appear Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

The Wednesday witness list also includes Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin and Lerner.

This would be Lerner's first congressional testimony since she unexpectedly made the IRS targeting scenario public.

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