Report: Top IRS officials knew in 2011 that conservative groups were targeted

An inspector general’s report due for release this week says senior Internal Revenue Service officials knew that agents were targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny as early as 2011, nine months before the IRS commissioner assured Congress the targeting was not happening.

The report is certain to raise questions about the timing of the IRS’s disclosure of the targeting on Friday, how high up were the officials who knew about the practice, and whether anyone outside the agency was aware of it.

Details of the inspector general’s audit, obtained by The Washington Post from a congressional aide with knowledge of the findings, revealed that Lois G. Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS and made the disclosure Friday, knew about the targeting of tea party and other groups in June 2011. In March 2012, IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman told Congress that the agency was not targeting conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status as “social welfare” groups.

On Saturday, IRS officials said they were in the process of independently confirming the timeline of the disclosures in the report by the IRS’s chief watchdog, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA), but they did not dispute the findings.

“IRS senior leadership was not aware of this level of specific details at the time of the March 2012 hearing,” according to a statement released by the IRS.

Asked about reports that the IRS unfairly targeted the tax-exempt status of conservative groups during the 2012 election, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the actions were inappropriate.

The White House said Saturday that it supports more formal investigations and disciplinary action, if necessary.

“The President believes that the American people expect and deserve to have the very best public servants with the highest levels of integrity working in government agencies on their behalf,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “Based on recent media reports, he is concerned that the conduct of a small number of Internal Revenue Service employees may have fallen short of that standard.”

Noting that the incident is still under review by the inspector general, Carney added, “If the Inspector General finds that there were any rules broken or that conduct of government officials did not meet the standards required of them, the President expects that swift and appropriate steps will be taken to address any misconduct.”

On Friday, IRS officials said that Lerner’s admission that tea party groups had been singled out occurred because she had been asked about it at a bar association conference. But it now appears that it may also have been an effort to position the agency ahead of the bad news it knew was coming in the report.

Tea party groups expressed outrage at the fresh revelation on Saturday.

“Yesterday we learned that the IRS lied to Congress and the American citizens when Douglas Shulman said there was ‘absolutely no targeting’ of tea party groups who applied for nonprofit status,” Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said Saturday. “Today we are learning that the IRS lied when they said that only ‘low-level employees’ were to blame for outrageous and egregious overreach and abuse of power.”

Shulman was appointed by President George W. Bush, and his six-year term ended in November. He has yet to be replaced as IRS commissioner.

The report said the IRS targeted groups with names containing “tea party” and “patriot” and that delays occurred in processing returns of conservative applicants, said the aide, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss information that has not been released to the public.

The IRS targeted We the People, Take Back the Country, and 9/12, a group founded by political commentator Glenn Beck, starting around March 2010, according to a TIGTA timeline provided to congressional staff. The IRS switched to more generic search criteria in July 2011 due to concerns from senior agency officials, the timeline said.

The IRS made no mention of targeting conservative groups in five separate responses to congressional inquiries between Nov. 18, 2011, and June 15, 2012, according to the TIGTA timeline.

The findings confirm what Lerner acknowledged on Friday, when she apologized for “absolutely inappropriate” actions by “front-line people.” Lerner said that about 75 groups were selected for extra inquiry — including, in some cases, improper requests for the names of donors, but added that the targeting was not driven by partisan motives.

The report also said that the IRS asked “unnecessary questions” of conservative groups, according to the aide.

The report is being prepared at the request of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which asked in March 2011 for an audit of the IRS’s tax-exempt unit amid complaints from conservative groups who were seeking tax-exempt status. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, declined to comment on the report Saturday.

Unlike a formal investigation that would assign blame or lead to a Justice Department criminal investigation, this week’s report is an audit of the tax-exemption unit’s operations that will include follow-up recommendations to agency leadership, including suggested disciplinary action if the audit yields instances of wrongdoing.

If necessary, lawmakers or the agency could ask the inspector general to conduct a more formal investigation to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing or to participate with separate congressional probes.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Friday afternoon that the Republican-led House will investigate the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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