Deirdre Shesgreen reports:
Outgoing IRS Commissioner Steve Miller defended himself and the federal tax agency under intense grilling from House lawmakers Friday, saying the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups was not politically motivated but rather “foolish mistakes” made by “people trying to be efficient.”
Miller told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that he did not mislead Congress, even though he and other top IRS officials failed to tell lawmakers that IRS workers in Cincinnati had flagged tax-exempt applications from tea party and similar organizations for special scrutiny.
“I did not mislead Congress, nor the American people,” said Miller, who resigned under pressure from the White House earlier this week. “I answered the questions as they were asked.”
The line of questioning in the cavernous House hearing room quickly divided along partisan lines. Republicans tried to wrap the White House up in the scandal and suggested it was the “tip of the iceberg,” while Democrats tried to insulate the president and cast it as a limited incident caused by a handful of rogue IRS workers.
Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., said the IRS targeting appeared to be part of a “culture of cover-ups and political intimidation in this administration,” with the truth “hidden . . . just long enough to make it through an election.”
The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin, of Mich., said the IRS had “completely failed” the public, but warned against turning the scandal into a political football. “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.” he said.
During the highly charged session, which lasted nearly four hours, no new evidence emerged showing that top IRS officials were involved with developing or implementing the inappropriate criteria used to single out groups with “tea party,” ‘’patriot,” or “9/12” in their names.
J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which probed the IRS’ actions, said that policy was developed by a team of IRS specialists in the IRS’ Cincinnati office, which reviews applications for tax-exempt status from groups around the country.
Even after being told to revamp the criteria and to stop focusing on groups with tea party affiliations, “Cincinnati staff changed the criteria back again to target organizations with specific policy positions,” George told lawmakers.
Still, George said he did not find evidence of any political motivation in the targeting.
“We did find gross mismanagement,” George said. He also said that while the targeting of tea party groups was improper, it was not illegal. George also said his review of the matter is ongoing.
Miller apologized for what he said were “obnoxious” actions taken by IRS workers. But he portrayed the agency as underfunded and inadequately staffed, and he said that granting non-profit status to groups with some political component was a difficult and murky arena.
“It would be wonderful thing to get better rules, to get more clear rules,” Miller said.
OHIO GROUPS FEATURED IN HEARING
Ohio tea party groups and Cincinnati IRS workers were center stage during much of Friday’s proceedings. Justin Binik-Thomas, a Deer Park business owner whose name appeared on a questionnaire the IRS sent to the Liberty Township Tea Party, became Exhibit A in GOP lawmakers’ efforts to highlight what they said was IRS harassment of conservative groups.
With Binik-Thomas and several other Ohio tea party activists sitting in the front row of the hearing room, Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, talked about how the IRS sent the Liberty Township Tea Party 35 questions in response to its tax-exempt application — including requests for the group’s postings on Twitter and Facebook, as well as resumes of all past and present employees.
And in question No. 26, the IRS directed, “provide details of your relationship with Justin Binik-Thomas.”
“To this day, he doesn’t know why his name is question No. 26,” Tiberi said of Binik-Thomas.
Tiberi also highlighted the travails of Marion Bower, president of a Fremont tea party group.
“Her group had a book club, and the IRS demanded a list of all the books they had read and a book report,” Tiberi said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
“. . . Mr. Miller,” the Ohio Republican continued, “I don’t know how you can defend any of this and I don’t know how you can say it’s not political.”
“We provided horrible customer service here. I will admit that,” Miller responded.
Tiberi and other Republicans grew increasingly frustrated with Miller, who answered many questions with vague responses and who said he could not say who first instigated the targeting.
“I don’t have names for you,” Miller said in response to a question from Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
“You’re telling us you have no knowledge of who initiated or who approved of this targeting?” Brady asked.
Miller said he stood by the Inspector General’s audit, which, Brady noted, did not include specific names of IRS workers.
‘I’M GLAD THEY’RE TAKING ACTION’
One thing that Miller did confirm: the IRS orchestrated last week’s question to Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS’ tax-exempt organizations division, at an American Bar Association meeting about the targeting of tea party groups. In response to a planted question, Lerner acknowledged the targeting and apologized for it, because she and others knew the Inspector General’s report was about to be released.
“It was a prepared Q&A,” Miller conceded. “We talked about what would be said.”
Friday’s House hearing was just the first in what promises to be a series of high-profile congressional probes into the IRS controversy. Next week, two other congressional panels will also hold hearings on the issue, with Lerner and others being called to testify.
Whether any legislative fix will emerge amid the flurry of bipartisan political outrage is unclear. Republicans have suggested that IRS powers might need to be curbed, while Democrats said the agency might need more resources to clamp down on political groups abusing their tax-exempt status.
In the meantime, the Ohio contingent of tea party representatives had a mixed reaction to Friday’s session.
Binik-Thomas said he was glad his case had hit “prime time” and was getting the attention it deserved. “I’m glad they’re taking action,” he said of members of Congress.
But Tom Zawistowski, past president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, said he felt like he’d been “kicked in the stomach” at the hearing. He said he was disgusted with the Democrats’ line of questioning and with what he saw as Miller’s squishy testimony.
“This guy doesn’t know anything,” he said of the departing IRS chief.