Steven Miller, previously the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, told Congress he did not believe it was illegal for the agency to create targeted lists of individual citizens and groups who would be singled out for special scrutiny, during a Friday hearing.
The House Ways and Means Committee grilled Miller, who resigned on Wednesday, and Treasury Inspector General Russell George over revelations that the IRS singled out groups with conservative names and missions for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The IRS maintains that lower-level employees at a Cincinnati, Ohio office were responsible.
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"Do you believe it is illegal for employees of the IRS to create lists to target individual groups and citizens in this country?" asked Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.).
"I don’t believe it is [illegal]," Miller said. "I don’t believe it should happen. Please don’t get me wrong, it should not happen."
Miller said the IRS actions were an example of "horrible customer service" and called a list of criteria that employees used to identify conservative groups "obnoxious."
While he acknowledged that the IRS actions were inappropriate, he objected to the characterization that conservative groups were "targeted."
"When you talk about targeting, it’s a pejorative term," Miller said. "What happened here was … that [an IRS employee] saw some Tea Party cases coming through, they were acknowledging that they were going to be engaged in politics … [and so IRS officials] in Cincinnati decided ‘let’s start grouping these cases.’"
"The way they centralized them [was] troubling. The concept of centralizing [was] not. We’re not targeting these people," Miller added.
Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS Exempt Organization Division, first admitted the agency singled out conservative organizations during an American Bar Association meeting last Friday, after being asked a question by an audience member.
Miller said he and Lerner had planned the disclosure, planting an associate in the audience to ask the question.
"I did speak to Lois about the possibility that now that the [inspector general] report was finalized, now that we knew all the facts, now that we had responded in writing and everything was done, did it make sense for us to now start talking about this in public?" Miller said.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R., Ill.) called the pre-planned question a "scheme" and "a manipulation," and asked why Miller did not disclose the news to the committee first.
Miller said the agency had called to try to get on the committee’s calendar.
"You called to try to get on the calendar? Is that all you got?" Roskam shot back.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) asked Miller why he had not informed the committee about this when he testified on the subject in April last year, since the acting commissioner said he had known about the targeting since March of 2012.
"You knew that the targeting was taking place. You knew the terms ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Patriots’ were being used," Ryan said. "You acknowledge a minute ago that they were outrageous and then when you're asked about this, that was the answer you gave us? How can we not conclude that you misled this committee?"
"I did not mislead the committee," Miller said. "I stand by my answer then and I stand by them my answer now. Harassment applies to political motivation. There is a discussion going on and there is no political motivation."
George, the inspector general, spoke to the committee about the findings of his report, which concluded the IRS used "inappropriate criteria to target … Tea Party and other organizations based on the name and policy positions."
George told congress that groups were singled out if their names included words such as "Tea Party," "patriot," and if their issues included "government spending," "government debt," or "taxes." Another listed criterion was "education of the public by advocacy or lobbing to ‘Make America a better place to live.’" Groups were also flagged if they had "any statements in the case of criticizing how the country is being run."
George said additional investigations were currently underway by the inspector general office.