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Senate Committee Grills Former IRS Commissioners on When Officials Knew Facts

May 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Senate Finance Committee hearing on the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service turned its focus to former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, who led the agency until last fall. Judy Woodruff has more, including testimony from his successor Steven Miller and the Treasury Department inspector general.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The drama surrounding the Internal Revenue Service shifted to a new scene today. The Senate Finance Committee heard from the man who ran the agency until last fall and from his successor.

Judy Woodruff has our report.

MAN: Do you swear that the testimony you’re about to give is the truth?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The hearing marked the first chance for lawmakers to question former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman since news broke that the agency had targeted conservative groups.

DOUGLAS SHULMAN, Former U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue: I’m deeply, deeply saddened by this whole set of events. I have read the I.G.’s report, and I very much regret that it happened, and that it happened on my watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shulman’s five-year term expired last November. This month, a Treasury Department inspector general disclosed that IRS agents had singled out groups seeking tax-exempt status with “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their names.

The report also revealed that Shulman learned of the practice in May of 2012.

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch noted that, two months before that date, Shulman told Congress there was absolutely no targeting.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: Mr. Shulman, why have you not come forward before today to correct the record and acknowledge that there was in fact inappropriate screening occurring in the IRS, the organization that you head — headed?

DOUGLAS SHULMAN: What I knew wasn’t the full set of facts in this report. What I knew some time in the spring of 2012 was that there was a list that was being used.

I knew that the word “tea party” was on the list, didn’t know what other words were on the list, didn’t know the scope and severity of this, didn’t know if groups that were pulled in were groups that would have been pulled in anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow complained that the targeting by staffers in a Cincinnati regional office went on for 18 months.

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW, D-Mich.: How in the world could it take so long for senior people at the IRS to find the problem, fix the problem? And was there no ongoing oversight of the employees in Cincinnati and what they were doing?

DOUGLAS SHULMAN: I’m not there to go ask a set of questions of people what happened, when, who and how.

DEBBIE STABENOW: But, with all due respect, you were there, though.

DOUGLAS SHULMAN: I was there. But since this all came to light and the full set of facts are there, I haven’t been able to be back there, talking with people, doing things. So, let me just answer, though, your question.

DEBBIE STABENOW: But why didn’t you know when you were there?

DOUGLAS SHULMAN: I — I agree that this is an issue that, when someone spotted it, they should have run up the chain, and they didn’t. And why they didn’t, I don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The news ultimately came out when an IRS official, Lois Lerner, took a prearranged question at a public conference on May 10th and issued an apology.

Today, Steven Miller, who was ousted last week as the acting IRS commissioner, said it was his idea to get the news out that way.

STEVEN MILLER, Former IRS Commissioner: We had our response. We thought we should begin talking about this. We thought we’d get out an apology.

The way we did it, we wanted to reach out to the — to Hill staff about the same time and come and brief. It didn’t work out. Obviously, the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The committee also heard from J. Russell George, the treasury inspector general for tax administration, who conducted the audit.

Idaho Republican Mike Crapo was skeptical of his conclusion that IRS agents were not driven by politics.

SEN. MIKE CRAPO, R-Idaho: Now have you reached the conclusion that there was none or that you haven’t found it?

J. RUSSELL GEORGE, Treasury Department Inspector General: It’s the latter, that we have not found any, sir.

MIKE CRAPO: Because it seems to me that it’s almost unbelievable to look at what’s happening and then say, well, there’s no political motivation here. How could an agency with the power that the Internal Revenue Service has, engage in this kind of conduct and it not be politically motivated?

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were also plenty of questions directed at the White House again today. The administration’s timeline surrounding who knew what and when about the activities at the IRS faced mounting scrutiny.

Presidential Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the White House’s top lawyer and the chief of staff were told in April about the inspector general’s report, but the president wasn’t informed. Today, he said:

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: There was nothing the president could or should do until that process was completed. And upon the release of that information, the release of the final report, the president moved very quickly to make clear his feeling that the conduct portrayed within it was outrageous and inappropriate and wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid the questions and answers, tea party groups protested outside IRS offices around the country today, and there will be more tomorrow when the House Oversight Committee holds its first hearing on the matter.