IRS targeted tea party groups in 2012 campaign
WASHINGTON -- The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.
IRS agents singled out dozens of organizations for additional reviews because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their exemption applications, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. In some cases, groups were asked for lists of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.
The agency -- led at the time by a Bush administration appointee -- blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware. But that wasn't good enough for Republicans in Congress, who are conducting several investigations and asked for more.
"I call on the White House to conduct a transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declared it was indeed inappropriate for the IRS to target tea party groups. But he brushed aside questions about whether the White House itself would investigate.
Instead, Carney said the administration expects a thorough investigation by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration. The inspector general has been looking into the issue since last summer, and his report is expected to come out next week, the IG's office said Friday.
Carney said he did not know when the White House first learned that tea party groups were being targeted.
Lerner acknowledged it was wrong for the agency to target groups based on political affiliation.
"That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review," Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association.
"The IRS would like to apologize for that," she added.
Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. Agency officials found out about the practice last year and moved to correct it, the IRS said in a statement. The statement did not specify when officials found out.
About 75 groups were inappropriately targeted. None had their tax-exempt status revoked, Lerner said.
The IRS is an independent agency within the Treasury Department that enforces the nation's tax laws. Revelations that the agency was targeting political groups because they were affiliated with a movement that is critical of President Obama could become a new headache for the White House.
"The admission by the Obama administration that the Internal Revenue Service targeted political opponents echoes some of the most shameful abuses of government power in 20th-century American history," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Many conservative groups complained during the campaign that they were being harassed by the IRS. They accused the agency of frustrating their attempts to become tax exempt by sending them lengthy, intrusive questionnaires.
The forms, which the groups have made available, sought information about group members' political activities, including details of their postings on social networking websites and about family members.
IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting groups based on politics.
"There's absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back and forth that happens to people" who apply for tax-exempt status, Shulman told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.
The IRS said senior leaders were not aware that specific groups were being targeted at the time of the hearing.
"While we acknowledged centralization of these applications last year, the IRS did not acknowledge the use of names as part of the process earlier because the details were not initially known to senior leadership and [the inspector general] has been reviewing the situation," the IRS said in a statement. "Their work is now far enough along that it was appropriate to address the issue when it came up during [Friday's] tax conference."
Shulman was appointed by President George W. Bush. His six-year term ended in November. Obama has yet to nominate a successor. The agency is now being run by acting Commissioner Steven Miller.