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Senators demand answers from IRS officials but get few new answers


U.S. senators of both parties directed outrage at top IRS officials over not being informed earlier as to the tax agency’s work to target conservatives and demanded answers Tuesday as to why action was not taken more quickly to halt the abuses. 

Senators voiced their dismay at the IRS leadership’s efforts to respond to indications that officials in the agency’s Cincinnati office had singled out conservative and Tea Party advocacy that had applied for tax-exempt status. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. demanded to know, “Why wasn't more firm action taken by people, either the commissioner himself or by people at the top?  It's outrageous. Any person can figure out this is unacceptable conduct.” 

Members of the U.S. Senate ask Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller about his knowledge of the department's alleged targeting of political groups.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican, said there was no doubt the episode constitutes a “scandal,” saying it “undermines Americans' trust that their government will enforce the law without regard for political beliefs or party affiliation.” 

A former IRS commissioner who presided over most of the time in which the IRS targeted conservatives, Douglas Shulman, told members of the committee that he was not aware of the full facts surrounding the abuses until earlier this month. 

And Steven Miller, the acting IRS commissioner who resigned from that position last week, took responsibility for the controversial manner in which the IRS sought to first publicize the agency’s abuses ahead of the release of an inspector general report on the matter. Miller said he was responsible for a plot to plant a question for an IRS official, Lois Lerner, at an American Bar Association panel discussion to allow her to publicly reveal the IRS targeting. 

“Obviously, the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea,” said Miller about the strategy, explaining that the IRS had failed to follow through with its plan to simultaneously brief Capitol Hill about the forthcoming report.

Those revelations hardly comforted Democratic or Republican senators alike, whose hearing marked the second official inquiry into the IRS controversy. Baucus openly wondered why IRS employees who engaged in or oversaw the abuses were not fired.

Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, asks former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman if he would offer an apology to the lawmaker's constituents over alleged targeting of political groups.

The revelations about the work by IRS officials to single out conservatives have become enmeshed with partisan politics. Though President Barack Obama has condemned the abuses and vowed to cooperate with congressional investigations into the matter, that has hardly silenced Republicans’ criticism of the controversy.

The GOP has focused heavily on the question of when Obama was made aware of the IRS’s practices, and whether he should have been briefed on the matter sooner. A hearing last week found that senior Treasury Department officials were notified of the existence of the investigation as early as last summer. And White House press secretary Jay Carney disclosed Monday that the White House counsel, Kathy Ruemmler, was notified of the details of the forthcoming report in late April. She, in turn, briefed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior officials, though they decided against personally briefing Obama.

But much of senators’ ire on Tuesday focused on the IRS leadership’s awareness of the singling out of conservatives as it unfolded, and their disclosure of those abuses to Congress during the subsequent investigation.

Shulman defended his performance by explaining that he did not know the full facts of the inspector general’s findings. He said he found out sometime during the spring of 2012 that there was a list including the word “Tea Party” being used by the officials in the tax-exempt office. But Shulman maintained he did not know what other words were on that list, nor was he aware of the severity or scope of the abuses.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican, confer during testimony in Washington May 21, 2013.

“When I left, the I.G. was looking into this to gather all of the facts,” he said. “I've now had the benefit of reading the report and that's the full accounting of facts that I have at this point.”

Republicans voiced outrage that no IRS official had disclosed their awareness of potential abuses or an investigation into the controversy during lawmakers’ efforts to get answers to that very question during the past few years.

“That is a lie by omission and you kept it from the people who are required to oversee this matter,” Hatch angrily told Miller, the outgoing IRS chief who had declined to previously reveal the IRS targeting.

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