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Hearing on IRS: What ousted chief offers, Republicans don't buy

Steven Miller, who resigned as acting IRS head this week, argued that the extra scrutiny for conservative groups amounted to ‘foolish mistakes.’ House Republicans see some problems reaching the White House.

By Staff writer / May 17, 2013

Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 17, 2013, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the extra scrutiny the IRS gave Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

Was the Internal Revenue Service criminal in layering on extra scrutiny to tea party groups seeking nonprofit status, or just bureaucratically shortsighted and “obnoxious,” as the agency’s former head put it Friday?

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The first position was taken by Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which grilled Steven Miller, the IRS’s former acting head, during Friday’s committee hearing on the IRS scandal – the first such panel since the subject came to light a week ago.

The latter position was the counterclaim by Mr. Miller, the man who recently tendered his resignation at President Obama’s request even though he took over the agency last November, after the targeting had stopped.

“I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection,” said Miller, who offered he found out about the issue in May of last year, when he was deputy commissioner for services and enforcement.

Miller’s explanation for why the IRS targeted conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status and unduly delayed those applications tracked with what the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration found in a report issued earlier this week.

“The listing described in the report, while intolerable, was a mistake and not an act of partisanship,” Miller said.

Agency employees thought they had found a useful heuristic for sorting a great number of groups that potentially required more research – flagging the names of organizations containing the words “tea party” or “9/12,” for example. Such research can determine if the group applying for tax exemption spent more of its time and money on politics than allowed by the 501(c)(4) designation being sought.

IRS staffers had no outside political interference, the report found.

On Friday Miller, echoing points made by Democrats on the panel, asked the committee to help sharpen the relevant tax law to make it easier to enforce – and beef up the agency’s budget.

“With respect to political activity, it would be a wonderful thing to get better rules, to get more clear rules,” he said. “In terms of our ability to get to this work, it would be good to get a little budget to get more than the people we have to do 70,000 applications and do our job.”

The panel’s Republicans simply weren’t buying what Miller was saying.

“On the one hand, you're arguing today that the IRS is not corrupt, but the subtext of that is you're saying, ‘Look, we're just incompetent,’ ” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R) of Illinois. “It is a perilous pathway to go down.”

House Republicans see the tendrils of malfeasance reaching into the White House, and many GOP members of the committee attempted to present the IRS scandal as evidence of an agency running amok.

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