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Outgoing IRS Chief Admits Mistakes, but Dismisses Notion Scrutiny Was Political

May 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Outgoing IRS chief Steven Miller admitted failures and faced tough questions at a Congressional hearing, but he also asserted that the IRS did not act out of political motivation in scrutinizing conservative groups. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Congress today formally launched the first of its investigations into the furor swirling around the Internal Revenue Service. The star witness was the official who had been running the agency until Wednesday.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

MAN: What you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.

KWAME HOLMAN: Steven Miller, the man forced out as acting head of the IRS, began by acknowledging failures.

STEVEN MILLER, Former Internal Revenue Service Commissioner: I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service we provided.

The affected organizations and the American public deserve better. Partisanship or even the perception of partisanship has no place at the IRS. It cannot even appear to be a consideration in determining the tax exemption of an organization.

KWAME HOLMAN: But, at the same time, Miller asserted IRS staffers didn’t act out of political motivation when they gave special scrutiny to tea party and other groups on the political right.

STEVEN MILLER: I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.

The listing described in the report, while intolerable, was a mistake, and not an act of partisanship.

KWAME HOLMAN: Miller resigned Wednesday, at the behest of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Joseph Grant, who oversees requests for tax-exempt status, also will step down. He’s retiring next month.

But it was clear today that neither the personnel shakeup nor apologies have calmed the storm for many, especially Republicans. Michigan Republican Dave Camp chaired the House Ways and Means hearing.

REP. DAVE CAMP, R-Mich.: 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Camp and other Republicans also argued that what happened at the IRS is part of a culture of cover-ups by the Obama administration.

DAVE CAMP: It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election. The American people have a right to the truth, to a government that delivers the facts, good or bad, no matter what.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee’s top Democrat, Sander Levin of Michigan, fired back, saying that goes too far.

REP. SANDER LEVIN, D-Mich.: I totally, totally disagree. If this hearing becomes essentially a bootstrap to continue the campaign of 2012 and to prepare for 2014, we will be making a very, very serious mistake and, indeed, not meeting our obligation of trust to the American people.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s hearing is just the beginning of Congress’ examination of IRS scrutiny of the tea party and other conservative groups. So far, three congressional committees have announced plans to investigate.

And, on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department was looking into whether any criminal violations have taken place. So far, the main source of information about what happened is J. Russell George, a Treasury Department inspector general. His report, released this week, singled out the IRS office in Cincinnati that screens applications of groups for tax exemptions.

J. RUSSELL GEORGE, Treasury Department Inspector General: IRS employees actually began selecting tea party and other organizations for review in early 2010.

KWAME HOLMAN: George said the practice lasted about 18 months, and he blamed ineffective management. He said IRS officials told him they were not under any political pressure to act.

Washington Democrat Jim McDermott pursued that conclusion.

REP. JIM MCDERMOTT, D-Wash.: The inspector general’s report says that no one acted out of malice or political motivation.

Mr. George, I want to know, do you still stand by that?

J. RUSSELL GEORGE: We have no evidence at this time to contradict that assertion, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, Steven Miller argued that even the term targeting is unfair. He said the Cincinnati office simply was overwhelmed when applications from tea party groups exploded.

STEVEN MILLER: What happened here is that someone saw some tea party cases come through. They were acknowledging that they were going to be engaged in politics.

People in Cincinnati decided, let’s start grouping these cases. Let’s centralize these cases. We have a limited number of people, 140 to 200, that work on the 70,000 applications that come in for tax-exempt status.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania complained the IRS would never accept that kind of explanation from any business.

REP. MIKE KELLY, R-Pa.: You’re not allowed to be shoddy, you’re not allowed to be run horribly, you’re not allowed to make mistakes. You’re not allowed to do one damn thing that doesn’t come in compliance. If you do, you’re held responsible right then.

I just think the American people have seen what is going on right now in their government. This is absolutely an overreach and this is an outrage for all America.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also demanded to know why Miller and others at the IRS didn’t inform Congress after they learned what was going on in May of 2012.

Louisiana Congressman Charles Boustany:

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY JR., R-La.: You sent letters to Congress acknowledging our investigation of these allegations, but consistently omitted that such discriminatory practices that are alleged were actually, in fact, taking place. Why — why did you mislead Congress and the American people on this?

STEVEN MILLER: Mr. Chairman, I didn’t mislead Congress nor the American people. I answered the questions as they were asked.

KWAME HOLMAN: And California Congressman Devin Nunes wanted to know why Miller didn’t fight to keep his job, if he feels that way.

REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-Calif.: You have said that numerous times on the record today, that you did nothing wrong. So I find it hard to believe, why did you resign? Or why are you resigning?

STEVEN MILLER: I never said I didn’t do anything wrong, Mr. Nunes. What I said is contained in the questions. I resigned because, as the acting commissioner, what happens in the IRS, whether I was personally involved or not, stops at my desk. And so I should be held accountable for what happens.

Whether I was personally involved or not are very different questions, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats at the hearing rejected claims of wide corruption in the Obama administration, but they agreed that political neutrality at the IRS must be beyond question.

REP. JOE CROWLEY, D-N.Y.: So, we’re all outraged. We’re all upset about this. I don’t believe, nor do any of my colleagues believe that any organization, political organization, should be targeted solely because of their thought. That’s on both sides of the spectrum.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA, D-Calif.: Let me key off of something, Mr. Miller, you said. You said, “Foolish mistakes were made.” I think the president actually said it better. He said that the handling of those tax-exempt applications in that process at the IRS was outrageous and intolerable. No excuse.

KWAME HOLMAN: And as the four-hour hearing drew to a close, there came a pledge from the chairman.

DAVE CAMP: But I promise the American people, this investigation has just begun. Hearing adjourned.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate Finance Committee formally begins its investigation with a hearing next Tuesday.