IRS chief sidestepped Tea Party questions

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Acting Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Steven T. Miller repeatedly failed to tell Congress that Tea Party groups were being inappropriately targeted, even once he had been briefed on the matter.

The IRS said on Monday that Miller was informed on May 3, 2012, that applications for tax-exempt status by Tea Party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra, sometimes burdensome, scrutiny.

At least twice after the briefing, Miller wrote letters to members of Congress to explain the process of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status without revealing that Tea Party groups had been targeted. On July 25, Miller testified before the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, but again was not forthcoming on the issue — despite being asked about it.

At the hearing, Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, told Miller that some politically active tax-exempt groups in his district had complained about being harassed. Marchant did not explicitly ask whether Tea Party groups were being targeted. But he asked how applications were handled.

Miller responded, “We did group those organizations together to ensure consistency, to ensure quality. We continue to work those cases,” according to a transcript on the committee's website.

He added, “It is my hope that some of the noise that we heard earlier this year has abated as we continue to work through these cases.”

Earlier, Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., raised concerns with the IRS about complaints that Tea Party groups were being harassed. Boustany specifically mentioned Tea Party groups in his inquiry.

But in a June 15, letter to Boustany, Miller gave a generic response.

He said that when the IRS noticed an increase in applications from groups that were involved in political activity, the agency “took steps to coordinate the handling of the case to ensure consistency.”

He added that agents worked with tax law experts “to develop approaches and materials that could be helpful to the agents working the cases.”

Miller did not mention that in 2011, those materials included a list of words to watch for, such as “Tea Party” and “patriot.” He didn't disclose that in January 2012, the criteria for additional screening was updated to include references to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

“They repeatedly failed to disclose and be truthful about what they were doing,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Camp's committee is holding a hearing on the issue on Friday, and Miller is scheduled to testify.

“We are going to need to find out how much he knew,” Camp said of Miller.

The Senate Finance Committee announced on Monday that it will join a growing list of congressional committees investigating the matter.

The IRS apologized on Friday for what it acknowledged as “inappropriate” targeting of conservative groups during the 2012 election to determine whether they were violating their tax-exempt status. In some cases, the IRS acknowledged, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors.

The agency blamed low-level employees in a Cincinnati office, saying no high-level officials were aware.

When members of Congress repeatedly raised concerns with the IRS about complaints that Tea Party groups were being harassed last year, a deputy IRS commissioner took the lead in assuring lawmakers that the scrutiny was a legitimate part of the screening process.

That deputy commissioner was Miller, who is now the acting head of the agency.

Camp and other members of the Ways and Means Committee sent at least four inquiries to the IRS, starting in June 2011. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, sent three inquiries. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent at least one.

None of the responses they received from the IRS acknowledged that conservative groups had been targeted, including a response to Hatch dated Sept. 11, 2012 — four months after Miller had been briefed.

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