WASHINGTON (AP) — The ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service apologized to Congress on Friday for his agency's tougher treatment of tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. He said they resulted from a misguided effort to handle a flood of applications, not political bias.
"I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service we provided," Steven Miller, who has been acting IRS commissioner, told the House Ways and Means Committee as the panel held Congress' first hearing on the episode. "The affected organizations and the American public deserve better. Partisanship and even the perception of partisanship have no place at the Internal Revenue Service."
At a hearing that saw lawmakers from both parties harshly criticize his agency, Miller conceded that "foolish mistakes were made" by IRS officials trying to handle a flood of groups seeking tax-exempt status. He said the process that resulted in conservatives being targeted, "while intolerable, was a mistake and not an act of partisanship."
Though Miller and another top IRS official are stepping down, the chairman of the committee said that would not be enough.
"The reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Camp also said the tougher examinations that conservative groups encountered seemed to be part of a "culture of cover-ups and intimidation in this administration." He offered no other examples.
Camp's remark about cover-ups drew a sharp retort from the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan. Levin said if the hearing became a preview of the 2014 political campaigns, "we'll be making a very, very serious mistake."
The administration has been forced on the defensive about last September's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the government's seizure of The Associated Press' telephone records as part of a leaks investigation.
Republicans are hoping to link the issues in an effort to raise questions about President Barack Obama's credibility and make it harder for him to press a second-term agenda.
Friday's hearing is the first of what are expected to be many on the subject by congressional panels. Underscoring the seriousness of the episode, Miller was sworn in as a witness, an unusual step for the Ways and Means panel and one that could put Miller in jeopardy if he is later shown to have misled lawmakers with his testimony.
Levin said that the IRS's mistreatment of conservative groups meant the agency "completely failed the American people." He said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that makes decisions about tax-exempt groups, should be "relieved of her duties."
Miller said the IRS struggled to efficiently handle growing numbers of applications for tax-exempt status.
The agency has said between 2008 and 2012, the number of groups applying for tax-exempt status as so-called social welfare groups more than doubled. Along with that was an increase in complaints that such groups were largely engaging in electoral politics, which is not supposed to be their primary activity.
"I do not believe partisanship motivated the people" at the IRS who engaged in the harsher screening for conservative groups, Miller said.
In recent months, Republicans on the Ways and Means panel had repeatedly asked the IRS about complaints from conservative groups that their applications were being treated unfairly.
On Friday, numerous Republicans wanted to know why Miller and others never told them the groups were being targeted, even after May 2012, when the IRS has said Miller was briefed on the practice. Miller was previously a deputy commissioner whose portfolio included the unit that made decisions about tax-exempt status.
"I did not mislead Congress or the American people," Miller told Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., one of several Republicans who challenged him about why he hadn't mentioned the targeting in the past.
Also testifying Friday was J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration.
In a report he issued this week, George said IRS officials reported they were not politically pressured to target conservative groups. Asked about that conclusion, George said Friday, "We have no evidence at this time to contradict that assertion," but in prepared testimony to the committee he said he is continuing to investigate that question.
George's report concluded that the IRS office in Cincinnati, which screened applications for the tax exemptions, improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for tougher treatment. The report says the practice began in March 2010 and lasted more than 18 months.
The report blamed "ineffective management" for letting IRS officials craft "inappropriate criteria" to review applications from tea party and other conservative groups, based on their names or political views. It found that the IRS took no action on many of the conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status for long periods of time, hindering their fundraising for the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Republicans have spent the past few days trying to link the IRS' improper scrutiny of conservatives to Obama. The president has said he didn't know about the targeting until last Friday, when Lerner acknowledged at a legal conference that conservative groups had been singled out.
Many of the groups were applying for tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations, which are allowed to participate in campaign activity if that is not their primary activity. The IRS judges whether that imprecise standard is met.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the FBI was investigating whether the IRS may have violated applicants' civil rights.
Obama has rejected the idea of naming a special prosecutor to investigate the episode, saying the investigations by Congress and the Justice Department were sufficient.
Obama has named Daniel Werfel, a top White House budget officer, to replace Miller.
Also Thursday, Joseph Grant, one of Miller's top deputies, announced plans to retire June 3, according to an internal IRS memo. Grant is commissioner of the agency's tax exempt and government entities division, which includes the agents that targeted tea party groups for additional scrutiny.
Grant joined the IRS in 2005 and took over as acting commissioner of the tax exempt and government entities division in December 2010. He was just named the permanent commissioner May 8.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
While an announcement hasn't been officially made, the Fort Wayne Urban League says Garry Hamilton will be the city's next police chief. Hamilton is currently a deputy chief at FWPD and would be the first African-American to hold the chief's position.
Indiana's largest farm organization is holding its annual state convention at the Grand Wayne Center in downtown Fort Wayne on Friday and Saturday.
Outshined by massive jackpots since Powerball doubled the cost of its tickets last year, Mega Millions enacted big changes to inflate its jackpots and lure customers who only play when the pots get huge — and the revamp appears to be working.
Some people from central Indiana's Howard County don't understand how officials could have rejected giving federal aid to help in their rebuilding from damage caused by last month's tornadoes.
A doctor who provides abortions in Fort Wayne is losing his relationship with a local obstetrician and gynecologist who serves as the physician designee if a woman has post-abortion medical issues.
Lutheran Health Network CEO Brian Bauer received the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash award at a ceremony Thursday afternoon.
Santa abandoned his traditional sleigh and arrived at Lutheran Children's Hospital in a fire truck.
Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control was busy Thursday afternoon responding to complaints of pets outside. Crews respond to every complaint in the hopes of preventing pets from freezing.
U.S. Census data shows that one Fort Wayne neighborhood is among the poorest in the state, and it the poverty rate has a direct correlation the rising crime statistics.
It was something that was never supposed to happen. A veteran who killed a woman in Indianapolis then took his own life was buried with full military honors. Since that day, the victim's family has been advocating against it.
The house fire affected traffic on U.S. 33 just north of Churubusco for over an hour. All lanes were back open less than two hours after the fire was called in.
Police said speed appeared to be a factor in a crash that all the occupants of the car seriously injured.
Three intersections on the north side of the city will have new left-turn signals that with a flashing yellow arrow. The new signals will be activated in January.
A plan is in the works to move Cindy's Diner from its current location in downtown Fort Wayne to another location one block northwest from its current location. The iconic restaurant has been a fixture downtown since 1990.
Former Komets executive, owner, general manager and coach Ken Ullyot passed away Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the age of 92.