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Acting IRS head apologizes, blames 'foolish mistakes' for targeting of conservative groups

 

 

The outgoing head of the IRS disputed Republicans’ suspicions that the tax-collecting agency’s targeting of conservatives was motivated by partisanship at the first congressional hearing on the scandal.

IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who submitted his resignation earlier this week, faced lawmakers at a House hearing on the IRS targeting, insisting that he had not mislead Congress or the American people. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

Steven Miller, the acting commissioner of the IRS who submitted his resignation from that role earlier this week, appeared on Friday to face lawmakers’ pointed questions about the revelations that IRS officials had inappropriately singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

But he and J. Russell George, the IRS inspector general whose report unearthed the controversy that has dominated Washington this week, testified that there was no evidence of political motivations among IRS employees who targeted conservative advocacy groups applying for nonprofit status. They instead blamed incompetence.

“I do not believe that partisanship motivated the practices of the people described in the IG report,” Miller said. “I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people who were trying to be efficient in their work.”

GOP lawmakers also repeatedly sought to ferret out any information as to whether Miller had talked with White House officials about the targeting of conservatives, or – more ominously – had shared confidential tax information with the administration. (The implication of that line of questioning involved last year’s presidential election, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s own tax practices became an issue in the election.)

Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Steve Miller, testified at a House hearing on IRS screening and defended his actions before Rep. Boustany, R-La., saying, "I did not mislead Congress or the American people. I answered the questions as they were asked."

To that end, George testified that he told the Treasury Department's general counsel and deputy secretary Neal Wolin of the investigation before the 2012 election.

In the week following the first revelations of the inspector general report, conservatives have seized upon the scandal to ding President Barack Obama, demanding criminal prosecutions of IRS officials, and accusing the president (as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., did Thursday) of a “culture of intimidation.” GOP members of the committee spent much of the hearing trying to advance that narrative

But Miller repeatedly – and, at times, tersely – disputed speculation that IRS officials were deliberately targeting ideological opponents of the Obama administration, and denied that he had misled Congress in previous testimony about the IRS’s actions. When asked sharply by Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., how he would characterize his previous, inaccurate testimony to Congress, Miller shot back: "I always answer questions truthfully, Mr. Camp."

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, criticizes the actions of the Internal Revenue Service at a House hearing on IRS screening, telling IRS head Steve Miller, "Is this government so drunk on power that it would turn its full force, its full might to harass and intimidate and threaten an average American?"

Miller, the ousted acting commissioner of the IRS, was the primary object of lawmakers’ scrutiny at Friday’s hearing, particularly Republicans who expressed incredulity and outrage at the IRS fiasco.

“Is this still America?” asked Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who said the IRS controversy were evidence of a government “drunk on power.”

Republicans came to the hearing armed with plenty of outrage and examples of Tea Party groups from their home districts running into red tape in their nonprofit applications, which they used to pummel Miller throughout the hearing. The outgoing commissioner parried their attacks by responding that he was not permitted to comment on specific cases.

Democrats spent the bulk of the committee’s hearing, though, warning their GOP colleagues against cultivating evidence of a scandal where there is none. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., asked both Miller and George, the inspector general, whether they had unearthed any evidence of political motivation in IRS officials’ scrutiny of conservatives.

They replied identically: “We did not, sir.”

Those answers scarcely satisfied Republicans, who have sensed a major opportunity – combined with simultaneous controversies this week involving the Obama administration’s handling of last year’s terror attack in Benghazi, and the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press journalists’ phone records – to play offense against the White House.

For their part, Democrats have largely tried to match Republicans in their outrage at the IRS controversy, led by the president himself. Obama said this week that he was “angry” at the IRS for its actions, and asked for Miller’s resignation. Obama named Daniel Werfel, who currently serves as controller of the Office of Management and Budget, as the new acting IRS commissioner on Thursday.

Jason Reed / Reuters

Outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller listens at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups on Capitol Hill, May 17, 2013.

The president has said he didn’t learn about the actions taken by the IRS to target conservative and Tea Party groups until details of the inspector general report leaked to the media last Friday.

But while the controversy will likely spur plenty of future hearings into the IRS wrongdoing, Friday’s testimony – for now – could help limit the political fallout to the IRS itself.

“As acting commissioner I want to apologize on behalf of the IRS for the mistakes that we made and the poor service that we provided,” Miller said in his opening statement. He said later in the hearing that he should ultimately be held accountable for IRS employees’ missteps, but denied that meant he was personally involved in directing political targeting.

 

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