Ousted IRS chief defends targeting of Tea Party as 'obnoxious,' not illegal

Acting IRS chief Steven Miller on Friday said he did not believe agency officials did anything illegal when giving extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Miller, who was forced to resign this week by President Obama, said he didn’t believe the scrutiny was illegal even as he apologized for the IRS’s actions, which have turned into a political storm for the White House.

He also admitted under questioning from House Ways and Means Committee members that facts could emerge that might change whether he thinks anyone in the agency committed a crime, and he said one staffer involved in the extra scrutiny was reassigned and another received counseling.

Facing tense, and at times hostile, questions from GOP lawmakers at the first congressional hearing on the IRS controversy, Miller said the screening process the IRS used was “obnoxious” and called the customer service the agency offered “horrible.”

Miller stressed that the extra attention happened because IRS officials faced an avalanche of applications for tax-exempt status.

But he also pushed back on GOP lawmakers who said the IRS was targeting conservatives, calling that a “loaded” statement.

“When you talk about targeting, that’s a pejorative term,” Miller said.

Asked if the IRS's actions had been illegal, he responded: “I don’t believe it is.”

He then added of the behavior: “I don’t believe it should happen.”

Miller’s answers have not sit well with GOP lawmakers throughout Friday’s hearing, and his comments fly in the face of top Republicans like Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who have said that agency staffers should be jailed.

Republicans on Friday accused the acting IRS chief of lying to them about the extra scrutiny given to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Miller found out about that special attention more than a year ago but declined to tell lawmakers.

At the start of Friday’s committee hearing, Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) rattled off several different violations he believes the IRS committed.

Camp also linked the IRS uproar to what he called a “culture of cover-ups and political intimidation in this administration,” an apparent reference to last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s subpoena of reporter records.

“This systemic abuse cannot be fixed with just one resignation,” Camp said. “And, as much as I expect more people need to go, the reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers.”

But Republicans on the panel have also expressed frustration throughout the hearing at Miller’s sometimes feisty answers, with the acting chief maintaining that he did not lie to them.

“You're not going to cooperate with me, Mr. Miller, and you've been uncooperative in this hearing,” Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) told the IRS official.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) pressed Miller for the names of the IRS officials involved in the improper targeting. Miller refused, saying, "I don't have names for you."

Democrats acknowledged that the IRS had made serious mistakes and generally agreed with Miller’s statements that agency officials did not target Tea Party and conservative groups for political reasons.

“What I'm trying to point out, and basically to debunk, is the notion or idea the political statements — and, I believe, nonfactual statements by Chairman Camp — to link these scandals to the White House,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), a member of House Democratic leadership.

Democrats also stressed repeatedly that the Doug Shulman, who was IRS commissioner when the targeting took place, was nominated by former President George W. Bush. And several said that the major issue was the cloudy regulations guiding which groups should be granted tax-exempt status.

Miller testified along with Russell George, the Treasury inspector general whose report details what he called “ineffective management” at the agency.

George’s report found that the IRS asked for excessive information from conservative groups, including donor lists and whether group leaders wanted to run for public office. The IRS also applied inconsistent principles when deciding which groups to give extra screening, the report said, leading some groups to wait months or years for approval.

According to the inspector general’s report, Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first disclosed the targeting, found out in June 2011. Lerner pushed for the screening guidelines to be changed, but other IRS officials eventually went around her to change them again.

George’s report also says that IRS staffers assert that lower-level employees crafted the screening process and that they were not influenced by any outside group.

Miller on Friday acknowledged that Lerner’s disclosure of the IRS targeting last Friday came from a planted question. The House Oversight Committee has requested that Lerner testify on Wednesday, but a committee aide told The Hill she has yet to confirm whether she will appear.

Camp had said in his opening statement that he was interested in hearing why the IRS targeting occurred and why the agency kept it secret for so long, who started the extra scrutiny, and when President Obama and his administration found out.

But in a hearing break, he told The Hill that he wasn’t satisfied with the answers the panel was getting from Miller, a feeling shared by other Republicans.

“On the one hand, you’re arguing today that the IRS is not corrupt,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). “But the subtext of that is you say, ‘Look, we’re just incompetent.’ And I think it is a perilous pathway to go down.”

--This report was originally published at 12:23 p.m. and last updated at 3:52 p.m.