WASHINGTON – "Is this still America? Is this government drunk on power?" asked the incredulous congressman.
Then Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, got right to the question of the hour, "Mr. Miller, who in the IRS is responsible for targeting conservative organizations?"
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Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Steve Miller ducked the question by not responding directly.
So, Brady simply asked, "You're telling us you have no knowledge of who approved this?"
Miller – who insisted the IRS practice of targeting conservatives is not illegal – gave the most bureaucratic response imaginable, saying he could not talk about a specific case.
Miller was the main witness at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday morning, as Congress began trying to find out who at the IRS ordered extra scrutiny for conservatives.
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It was very difficult for lawmakers to try to pinpoint just who at the IRS was responsible for the abuse because the man ultimately responsible, Miller, seemed confused about who did what.
Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Richard Neal asked Miller what steps the IRS had taken to ensure that political targeting of tax-exempt applicants never happens again.
Miller said the agency gave verbal counseling to “the person we thought, at the time, to be responsible for the listing.”
But, Miller said, IRS officials eventually decided that might not have been the right person, so the agency eventually held a meeting with all managers in the determinations division to walk them through the proper procedures for reviewing tax-exempt applications.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., also tried asking who was responsible.
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"Did you ask anyone?" wondered Reichert.
Miller said he asked senior technical adviser, Nancy Marks.
"And did Nancy tell you who's responsible?" Reichert asked.
"That I don't remember, to be honest with you," Miller replied.
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Reichert seemed flabbergasted.
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., tried to get Miller to admit that former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman lied to Congress. The congressman played a video of Shulman telling lawmakers that the IRS hadn't targeted conservative groups.
Under questioning, Miller said Shulman's statement was "incorrect, but not untruthful."
Miller denied the IRS "targeted" conservative groups, saying that was a "pejorative term."
But the congressman pointed out that "targeting" was the very term used repeatedly in the inspector general's report on IRS abuse.
Miller was asked whether he found any evidence of political motivation by the IRS employees and replied, "We did not."
But before Miller even spoke, the committee's top Democrat expressed shock at the scandal.
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said the IRS has "completely failed the American people, singling out organizations based on their political views rather than their actual activities."
In his opening statement, Miller apologized to the American people for what he called "misdeeds and poor service." He said the American people deserve better and the IRS should not even appear to show partisanship.
Miller claimed "foolish mistakes" were made by IRS employees in their "workload selection" but he did not believe they were politically motivated.
Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., disagreed with that in his opening statement.
"This appears to be just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups – and political intimidation – in this administration," he said.
"This revelation goes against the very principles of free speech and liberty upon which this country was founded. The blatant disregard with which the agency has treated Congress and the American taxpayer raises serious concerns about leadership at the IRS."
"Trimming a few branches will not solve the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten," Camp said.
When Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asked Miller why he is resigning, since he had not admitted any wrongdoing, Miller replied, "I never said I didn't do anything wrong."
"I resigned, because … what happens at the IRS, whether it was involved or not, stops at my desk. I should be held accountable," he said.
Also testifying was the Treasury Department's Inspector General for Tax Administration, J. Russell George, who admitted the IRS inappropriately ask for donor information from those groups it targeted for extra scrutiny.
George claimed the IRS destroyed that information after realizing it had material it wasn't authorized to collect.
A potentially big revelation coming out of the hearing was that members of the Obama administration did, in fact, know of an investigation into suspected IRS misdeeds during the 2012 presidential campaign.
George told the hearing that he informed the Treasury's general counsel on June 4, 2012 of his investigation into the IRS' extra scrutiny given to conservative groups. He said he informed Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin "shortly thereafter."
George said he told the senior Treasury officials about the investigation but not his conclusion that the targeting had been improper.
Still, that will add fuel to the fire for Republicans looking for signs that Obama administration officials knew about the investigation but chose not to disclose it during the president's re-election campaign.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said, "That raises a big question."
House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said, "It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election."
The IRS has tried to maintain that the extra scrutiny given to tea party groups and other conservatives was done by low-level agents in the department's Cincinnatti office, but those agents are saying they were just following order from their bosses. The extra scrutiny given conservatives also happened at other offices, including the IRS office in Washington.
On Friday, it was Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., who seemed to speak for the ordinary Americans who packed the spacious House Ways and Means Committee hearing room.
He began by noting, "If you think it’s uncomfortable sitting over there you ought to be a private individual when the IRS is across from you asking you questions."
Towards the end of his allotted five minutes, Kelly unloaded on the two witnesses, saying, "[the IRS] can do almost anything they want to anybody they want, anytime they want. This is very chilling for the American people.
"I don’t believe the White House just found out about this in a news report," he said. "This reconfirms everything the American public believes! This is a huge blow to the faith and trust the American people have in their government!
"Is there any limit to the scope of where you folks can go?
"I am more concerned today than I was before. The fact that you all can do just about anything you want to anybody. You know, you can put anybody out of business that you want anytime you want."
His voice rising with indignant outrage, Kelly thundered, "This is absolutely an overreach, and this is an outrage for all Americans."
People in the gallery jumped to their feet and the room erupted in cheers and applause which did not die down until the chairman banged the gavel to restore order.
More developments in the IRS scandal Friday:
- A shocking disclosure during the hearing revealed the extreme measures taken by the IRS. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., read a letter sent from the IRS to the Coalition for Life in Iowa that said, "Please detail the content of the members of your organization's prayers."
- Another request the IRS made of the Coalition, “You stated that you sponsored a Forum on Stem Cells, End of Life Decisions and a possible forum on Contraception. Please describe in detail the information provided at each of these forums."
- Schock said the IRS asked another applicant, "Please detail certain signs that may or may not be held up outside a Planned Parenthood facility."
- Another IRS letter read, “Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3).
- "The Thomas More Society provided Schock with more than 150 pages of analysis and evidence that it says show the IRS has repeatedly harassed pro-life organizations since 2009.
- The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents 27 Tea Party organizations targeted by the IRS, told the House committee that harassment and abuse is still ongoing, with 10 organizations still facing investigation by a politically-motivated IRS. The ACLJ is preparing a lawsuit to be filed against the IRS next week.
- House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who was censured for not paying 17 years worth of taxes on rental income and filing inaccurate tax disclosure reports, had the chutzpah to say, “This is wrong to abuse the tax system.”
- NBC's Lisa Myers reported that the IRS deliberately chose not to reveal it had targeted conservative groups until after the 2012 presidential election. Myers said the IRS commissioner "has known for at least a year that this was going on."
- A gang of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged the IRS last year to do just what it did: target conservative 501(c)(4) groups. Schumer sent a letter to the IRS, also signed by Democratic Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that called on the agency to investigate groups masquerading as “social welfare organizations.”
- It turns out Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who now claims “These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust" had been publicly calling for tighter restrictions on 501(c)(4) groups affiliated with conservatives.
- Lois Lerner's bombshell disclosure about the scandal last week was a planned event, not a spontaneous response. The head of the tax exempt division of the IRS seemed to make the admission out the blue while answering a question during a panel at an American Bar Association conference. It turns out the question was planted. Miller testified Friday that it was part of a prepared strategy to release the information to the public. Asked why he did not tell the committee first, Miller first said they planned “to do that at the same time,” but that “did not happen.”
- Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, R-Nev., was grilled about whether the IRS illegally provided him the tax returns of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson told the Daily Caller “The answer to your question is no, the IRS did not leak Romney’s tax returns to Senator Reid.” Reid made a wild and inaccurate claim during the campaign that Romney hadn't paid taxes for 10 years. But even after Romney released his returns proving Reid wrong, the Democrat insisted, “He’s hiding something! It is so evident he’s hiding something!”
- Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan called this "the worst Washington scandal since Watergate." She put the blame on Obama, writing, "A president sets a mood, a tone. He establishes an atmosphere. If he is arrogant, arrogance spreads. If he is too partisan, too disrespecting of political adversaries, that spreads too. Presidents always undo themselves and then blame it on the third guy in the last row in the sleepy agency across town."
- Joseph Grant, head of the tax-exempt and government entities division of the IRS, is suddenly leaving the agency immediately instead of retiring in June as he'd previously planned. Grant supervised the department responsible for targeting conservative groups.
- Attorneys for Tea Party Patriots (TPP), the nation’s largest tea party organization, sent a letter to the IRS Chief Counsel demanding they preserve all documents, emails, phone records, and other correspondence related to the targeting of tea party groups including their own and their locally affiliated groups as TPP reviews all legal recourse. They also demanded the termination of Sarah Hall Ingram, who served as the official in charge of tax-exempt organizations during the time Tea Party Patriots were targeted and now heads the IRS’s Obamacare office which oversees implementation.
- Americans for Prosperity, the largest free-market grassroots organization in American, released a statement following the news that Ingram now heads the implementation of ObamaCare. “The same official who oversaw the IRS political profiling of Americans has no place overseeing the enforcement of the many taxes and regulations in ObamaCare,” said AFP President Tim Phillips. “It’s clear that individuals within the IRS cannot be trusted to fairly and equitably apply the law when it comes to tax status. It would be truly outrageous to further enable those same individuals to police the health care decisions of our children and families."
- While the IRS was busy tying-up tea party tax-exempt applications with endless red tape it somehow gave the Barack H. Obama Foundation tax-exempt status to raise money in Kenya in about a month.