By Justin Sink and Bernie Becker - 05/13/13 04:14 PM EDT
President Obama said Monday that he would “not tolerate” political targeting by the Internal Revenue Service, calling reports that the agency had gone after conservative groups “outrageous.”
“If you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous. It is contradictory to our traditions, and people have to be held accountable,” Obama said at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama said he first learned that employees of the federal tax agency had targeted conservative groups when news reports emerged on Friday.
The president said that concern over the neutrality of the agency should exist “regardless of party.”
“I have no patience with it, I will not tolerate it,” Obama said.
On Sunday, Sen. Susan Collins expressed disappointment that the president “hasn't personally condemned this.” The Maine Republican told CNN that Obama “needs to make crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable.”
The IRS apologized Friday for having wrongfully singled out political groups that included “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications for tax-exempt status.
But an investigative report from the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, expected to be made public this week and obtained early by The Hill and other news organizations, suggests that the political targeting was more widespread and that senior IRS officials were aware of it as early as 2011.
An audit on the IRS’s oversight of tax-exempt groups, which The Hill obtained from congressional staff, says that the tax agency also targeted groups critical of government spending, debt, taxes, and those advocating making “America a better place to live.”
Senior IRS officials, including Lerner, also knew about the targeting in June 2011 –around nine months before then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told a congressional committee the agency was not targeting conservatives.
According to the report, scrutiny of some 300 conservative groups began in 2010. The IRS has said that while some of the groups under intensified scrutiny withdrew their applications, though none have been denied tax-exempt status so far.
The circulated Inspector General’s findings do not indicate who was responsible for making the decision to apply additional scrutiny to conservative groups — something likely to only fuel the controversy surrounding the disclosure.
On Friday, the IRS insisted the decision to target conservative groups was initiated by low-level workers in a Cincinnati field office. Shortly after Lerner was briefed on how IRS staffers were singling out Tea Party groups in June 2011, the agency developed new criteria that identified groups seeking tax-exempt status that were involved in politics, lobbying or advocacy.
Republicans took the lead in calling out the IRS and seeking investigations on the agency’s practices on Friday. But by Monday, Democrats were also saying they wanted a wide-ranging examination into the agency.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Twitter that he supported Finance Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) plans to investigate.
On Sunday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told NBC News that “there has to be accountability” both for the IRS employees who targeted conservative groups and those “who were telling lies about it being done.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, called on Steven Miller, the agency's acting commissioner, to resign. Miller did not head the agency during the time Tea Party groups were targeted, but is a veteran of the agency's Large Business and International Division.
And Jenny Beth Martin, the leader of the nation's largest Tea Party organization, said Monday that the IRS's apology was not enough.
“A simple apology on a conference call is not enough by a long-shot,” Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, told Fox News. “Congress needs to investigate this and find out how many more lies the IRS is telling.”
On Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney looked to deflect criticism for the brewing scandal by noting that “the IRS is an independent enforcement agency” with only two political appointees. He also noted that Shulman was appointed commissioner of the agency by former President George W. Bush.
This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.