May 16, 2013

Obama ousts IRS chief over targeting of groups

A visibly angry president says 'I will not tolerate this kind of behavior' and vows to also hold others who were involved accountable.

By MATEA GOLD, JOSEPH TANFANI and MELANIE MASON Tribune Washington Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: IRS scandal

Is President Obama doing enough to address the IRS's targeting of conservative groups?

Yes

No

View Results

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President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday May 15, 2013. The president spoke after discussing the IRS matter with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and his top deputy, Neil Wolin. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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A TIMELINE OF IRS SCRUTINY OF CONSERVATIVE GROUPS

A look at events leading to the disclosure that the Internal Revenue Service placed conservative groups under special scrutiny for 18 months before the 2012 elections, a practice that has prompted congressional inquiries and a Justice Department criminal investigation:

2010:

March-April: IRS agents begin giving extra attention to tax-exempt applications from groups associated with the tea party or with a political sounding agenda in their names, such as "Patriots," ''Take Back the Country" or "We the People," according to the IRS inspector general.

August: The first IRS "BOLO" listing – meaning Be on the Lookout – is issued for "various local organizations in the Tea Party movement" that are seeking tax-exempt status.

2011:

June: Lawmakers send the first of at least eight letters asking the IRS to address complaints that conservative groups are being subjected to burdensome screening in their applications for tax-exempt status.

June 29: Lois G. Lerner, in charge of overseeing tax-exempt organizations at the IRS, learns at a meeting that groups are being targeted, according to the inspector general. Lerner is told that groups with "Tea Party," ''Patriot" or "9/12 Project" in their names were being red-flagged. Statements in case files that are critical of the country's leadership or that want to "make America a better place to live" also prompt examination. Lerner directs agents to change the criteria for flagging groups immediately, the inspector general says.

Dec. 16: Despite being briefed about the matter six months earlier, Lerner does not divulge the flagging of conservative groups when she and others from the IRS meet staff members of the House Ways and Means Committee to discuss the issue, according to the staff's timeline of events.

2012:

January: The criteria for screening, altered after Lerner's staff meeting six months earlier, is modified again. Now the IRS is on the lookout for references to the Constitution or Bill of Rights in the materials of organizations seeking tax-exempt status, for "political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government," and more.

March 22: IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman tells Congress there is "absolutely no targeting" of groups based on their political views.

May: Lerner does not divulge the flagging in 45-page letters to two lawmakers inquiring about the issue.

May 3: Deputy Commissioner Steven Miller is told by staff that that applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra scrutiny, according to the agency. (Miller now is acting commissioner.)

June 15: Miller responds to a letter from Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., who had raised concerns about possible harassment of tea party groups by the IRS. Miller does not concede conservatives had been singled out. He says generally that the IRS is seeing more tax-exempt applications from politically active groups and taking steps to "coordinate the handling of the case to ensure consistency."

July 25: Miller testifies to the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee but does not divulge what he was told in May about the screening of tea party groups.

Sept. 11: Millers writes a letter responding to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee but again does not own up to the scrutiny conservatives were placed under. Hatch had written three times to the IRS about the complaints.

Nov. 6: The presidential and congressional elections.

Nov. 15: Lerner and others from the IRS meet Ways and Means staff but again do not acknowledge the targeting.

2013:

Week of April 22: White House counsel learns that the inspector general is finishing a report about the IRS office in Cincinnati, which handles tax-exempt applications, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.

May 10: Lerner apologizes on behalf of the IRS for "inappropriate" targeting of conservatives; White House counsel is said to receive inspector general's report; President Obama is said to have heard of the matter for the first time. Lerner says no high-level officials were aware of the targeting, a statement seemingly at odds with the timeline of events, and blamed low-level employees in Cincinnati.

May 13: Obama says if the IRS intentionally went after conservatives, that's "outrageous." The Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee joins Republican-led House committees in planning fresh investigations of the matter.

May 14: Miller says his agency demonstrated "a lack of sensitivity" in trying to figure out whether organizations claiming a tax exemption met the standard for it. The Justice Department says it will conduct a criminal investigation, the inspector general's report is released, and Obama calls the findings "intolerable and inexcusable."

May 15: In congressional testimony, Attorney General Eric Holder says the FBI's investigation could include potential civil rights violations, false statements and potential violations of the law prohibiting federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities.

 

Most important, he said, "If we have to bring criminal actions to make sure this kind of activity does not happen again," the department will do so.

Holder did not say whom the Justice Department was targeting in its investigation. Legal experts noted that it was difficult to prosecute false statement cases.

"You see very, very few of these cases ever brought. The standard is very high," said Nathan J. Hochman, a former assistant attorney general for the tax division at the Justice Department. Hochman said a misleading statement was "usually not enough."

Miller also serves as deputy IRS commissioner for services and enforcement, a role in which he fielded questions from members of Congress who said their constituents were complaining about intrusive questions the IRS was posing to conservative organizations.

According to the inspector general's report, Miller became aware that there were potential problems more than a year ago. In late March 2012, amid news reports that tea party groups were having difficulty getting their applications approved by the IRS, he asked one of his managers to find out what was going on.

On May 3, 2012, Miller learned that the agency had improperly singled out groups that used conservative terms in their paperwork, the IRS said this week.

But six weeks later, in a letter to the chairman of a key House oversight subcommittee, Miller made no mention of the inappropriate handling of the applications. He wrote that after an increase in filings for tax-exempt status in 2010, the agency "took steps to coordinate the handling of the cases to ensure consistency."

Miller noted that some applications had lingered "for a longer time than expected." And he made an allusion to some internal problems, writing that, in early 2012, "issues with respect to these cases were brought to the attention" of top officials who "ensured more timely and consistent handling of the cases."

He continued to defend the IRS process in letters to Congress in June and September 2012, months after staff attorneys had flagged some of the questions as "troubling" and the agency had decided to destroy some donor information.

And in July testimony before a House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, Miller fielded questions from lawmakers who said groups in their districts felt they were being harassed by the IRS. He described the process for evaluating social welfare groups, without mentioning that agents had used inappropriate criteria to screen potentially politically active groups.

Many "are very small organizations and they are not quite sure what the rules are, and so we are working with them to ensure that they understand what the rules are," he testified.

In a USA Today op-ed published Monday, Miller acknowledged "mistakes were made, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan motivation."

He said the IRS was ill-equipped to deal with the deluge of applications the agency received starting in 2010. He also blamed ambiguity in the laws governing social welfare groups.

"The new procedures we have implemented ensure the mistakes we made won't be repeated," Miller wrote.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, plans to hold a hearing with former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman and top IRS and Treasury officials to press them on whether other groups were targeted and how tax agents dealt with donor records provided by the groups.

(Continued on page 3)

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Today's poll: IRS scandal

Is President Obama doing enough to address the IRS's targeting of conservative groups?

Yes

No

View Results