Attention Shifts to White House in IRS Probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -

Two senior aides to President Barack Obama knew weeks ago about a watchdog report on the U.S. Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups, a spokesman said on Monday, shifting the focus to the White House in a fast-moving controversy.

White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was told on April 24 about an upcoming report by the Treasury’s Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) on the IRS practice, which an IRS official apologized for on May 10, triggering the controversy.

Soon after she learned of the report, Ruemmler briefed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other members of the senior staff, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a news briefing.

Ruemmler decided there was no need to inform the president, Carney said, as the administration struggled to put a lid on the IRS affair which has become a major distraction early in Obama’s second term.

Carney defended White House inaction prior to the completion of the inspector general’s probe, saying any intervention would have been inappropriate. In any case, he said, there was no urgency because the activity in question had stopped about a year earlier.

Carney last week said Ruemmler had not necessarily been told of the contents of the TIGTA report, which found IRS agents had targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny based on the use in their names of key words, such as “Tea Party” and “Patriot.”

Ruemmler was told on April 24 the report would address “line IRS employees improperly scrutinizing … organizations by using words such as Tea Party and Patriot,” Carney said on Monday.

Obama fired acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on Wednesday and called the inspector general’s findings outrageous. The report found no evidence of political motivation for the targeting or of any White House involvement.

As the White House fought to contain the political damage, two congressional committees were preparing to hold hearings on the report, with some lawmakers calling for the Obama administration to fire more people linked to the scandal.

Lois Lerner, chief of the IRS tax-exempt unit, was scheduled to testify on Wednesday to a Republican-controlled investigative committee of the House of Representatives, along with other officials. Lerner’s apology on May 10 for the IRS targeting at a legal conference in Washington set off the furor.

Representative Sander Levin called for Lerner’s resignation on Friday, saying she had recently testified to a House subcommittee and failed to disclose what she knew about the targeting. “This is wholly unacceptable,” he said.

Levin is the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law and oversees the IRS.