WASHINGTON -- Congressional investigators are starting to see cracks in the Internal Revenue Service argument that a small group of agents in the Cincinnati office solely targeted conservative political groups.
Investigators, who are still in the early stages of their probe, have not uncovered any direct evidence that senior officials in Washington ordered the agents to target tea party groups, or reasons why they may have done so.
But two agents in the IRS's Cincinnati office said they believe their work was being closely monitored by higher-ups in Washington. One agent, Elizabeth Hofacre, complained to investigators that she was being micromanaged by Washington when she processed applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups, according to a transcript of her interview with investigators.
Her interview suggested a long trail of emails that could support her claim.
"It was demeaning," Hofacre said. "One of the criteria is to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education, whereas on this case, I had no autonomy at all through the process."
The revelation could prove to be significant if investigators are able to show that Washington officials were involved in singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. IRS officials have said repeatedly that the targeting was initiated by front-line agents in the Cincinnati office and was stopped once senior officials in Washington found out.
A yearlong audit by the agency's inspector general found no evidence that Washington officials ordered or authorized the targeting. However, the inspector general blamed ineffective management by senior IRS officials for allowing the targeting to continue for nearly two years during the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Since the revelations were made public last month, much of the agency's top leadership has been replaced. President Obama forced acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to resign, replacing him with Danny Werfel, a former White House budget official who is conducting a review of the agency's operations.
Three congressional committees and the Justice Department are also investigating. Investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee have interviewed at least four IRS workers as part of their probe.
The Associated Press viewed transcripts of interviews with two IRS agents working in the Cincinnati office.
Gary Muthert, an IRS agent there, said his local supervisor told him in March 2010 to check the applications for tax-exempt status to see how many were from groups with "tea party" in their names. The supervisor's name was blacked out in the transcript.
"He told me that Washington, D.C., wanted some cases," Muthert said of his supervisor.
Muthert said he came up with fewer than 10 applications. But after checking some of the group's websites, he noticed similar groups with "patriots" or "9-12 project" in their names, so he started looking for applications that mentioned those terms too.
Throughout a two-month period, Muthert said he found about 40 applications that mentioned tea party, patriots or 9-12 project -- the latter being groups that aspire to re-instill a post-9/11 spirit of unity in the country.
"I used 'patriots' because some of the tea parties wouldn't, they would shorten their name to TP Patriots," Muthert said. "I thought, OK, I will use 'patriot.'"
Muthert said his supervisor told him that someone in Washington wanted to see seven of the applications, so Muthert prepared the files.
Whom did you send them to? An investigator asked.