WASHINGTON – Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved in the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea party-affiliated groups.
IRS employees in Cincinnati also told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.
Lois Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS, told reporters Friday that the “absolutely inappropriate” actions were undertaken by “frontline people” working in Cincinnati to target groups with “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12″ in their names.
In one instance, however, Ron Bell, an IRS employee, informed an attorney representing a conservative group focused on voter fraud that the application was under review in Washington. On several other occasions, IRS officials in Washington and California sent conservative groups detailed questionnaires about their voter outreach and other activities, according to the documents.
“For the IRS to say it was some low-level group in Cincinnati is simply false,” said Cleta Mitchell, a partner in the law firm Foley & Lardner who sought to communicate with IRS headquarters about the delay in granting tax-exempt status to True the Vote.
Moreover, details of the IRS’s efforts to target conservative groups reached the highest levels of the agency in May 2012, far earlier than has been disclosed, according to Republican congressional aides briefed by the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration on the details of their reviews.
Then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman, an appointee of President George W. Bush who stepped down in November, received a briefing from the TIGTA about what was happening in the Cincinnati office in May 2012, the aides said. His deputy and the agency’s current acting commissioner, Steven Miller, also learned about the matter that month, the aides said.
The officials did not share details with GOP lawmakers who had been demanding to know whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups, Republicans said.
“I wrote to the IRS three times last year after hearing concerns that conservative groups were being targeted,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Monday. “In response to the first letter I sent with some of my colleagues, Steven Miller, the current acting IRS commissioner, responded that these groups weren’t being targeted.”
“Knowing what we know now,” he added, “the IRS was at best being far from forthcoming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress.”
As new details emerged, Democrats and Republicans alike decried the agency’s actions as an unacceptable abuse of power.
In a news conference on Monday, President Barack Obama said he learned of it in media reports on Friday. “If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous,” Obama said. “And there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday that the White House counsel’s office learned of an upcoming IRS inspector’s general report on April 22 as part of a routine notification, but had not received access to the report.
“These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus. “The IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny.”
Separately, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Turner introduced companion bills Monday that would require the IRS to fire any employee found “willfully” violating “the constitutional rights of a taxpayer,” according to statements by both lawmakers. The bills also would make them criminally liable for their actions.