The outgoing head of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) angered Republican lawmakers on Friday by resisting their demands that he identify who at the tax-collection agency had inappropriately targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
However, during the first hearing into a growing IRS scandal that could preoccupy Washington for months, Republicans did learn that a top official in US President Barack Obama’s administration knew that the IRS was looking into the targeting nearly a year ago.
That detail could encourage Republicans’ efforts to link the scandal to the White House as the administration faces a series of setbacks that threaten to derail Obama’s second-term priorities.
Friday’s hearing was dominated by lawmakers’ grilling of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who provided few clear answers while apologizing for the extensive questioning and years-long delays that many conservative groups have experienced after applying for tax-exempt status.
Miller, who was fired by Obama on Wednesday, said the overly aggressive scrutiny of such groups was the result of mismanagement, not partisan politics. His comments echoed the findings of a Treasury Department inspector general’s report released this week.
“I think what happened here is that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient,” said Miller, who will leave his post next week and be replaced by Daniel Werfel, a budget specialist in the administration.
Miller said he did not know who had come up with the idea to single out groups that appeared to be politically conservative for intense reviews of whether they qualified to be tax-exempt.
He said that although the added scrutiny was wrong, he did not think that IRS employees had broken any laws.
That claim drew the ire of Republicans on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, as did Miller’s shrugs when lawmakers pressed him over why he had not told Congress about the probe even though he learned about it a year ago.
The hearing did seem to yield some fruit for Republicans who are trying to cast the targeting of conservative Tea Party and “Patriot” groups as a political initiative encouraged by the Obama administration.
The Treasury Department’s internal watchdog, J. Russell George, told the House panel that Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, an Obama political appointee, learned nearly a year ago that a government watchdog was looking into inappropriate targeting by the IRS.
Wolin, the No. 2 official at Treasury, is due to testify next week before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In a statement, the Treasury Department said it made the probe public last fall in an annual report that listed more than 200 other internal investigations.
US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was told about the investigation when he took office in March, the department said, but neither he nor Wolin was told about its findings.
Miller acknowledged that he learned that IRS investigators were looking into the issue a year ago, but he did not mention the probe to lawmakers. He said he had not misled lawmakers by keeping quiet about the issue in prior appearances on Capitol Hill.
“I was answering the questions that I was asked” by Congress, he told the House committee.
Miller appeared to grow irritated over the course of the four-hour hearing, repeatedly interrupting questioners, flashing quizzical looks and shrugging his shoulders.
Miller said the IRS has had trouble keeping up with the flood of 70,000 tax-exempt applications it has received in recent years, and asked for money to hire more examiners.
Several Republicans responded that the IRS should instead be shrunk.
Tea Party groups investigated by the IRS say the tax agency made unusually extensive demands, such as asking the groups to provide social-media posts and lists of books that members had read, and tell agents whether any members of the group planned to run for public office in the future.
Republicans have vowed to find out who was involved, but Miller did not provide much of a road map.
“Who is responsible for targeting these individuals?” asked Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican.
“I don’t have names for you,” Miller responded.
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.”
Two other congressional committees will hold IRS hearings next week.