WASHINGTON -- The Internal Revenue Service took a bipartisan drubbing Friday morning over its targeting of conservative political groups, even as its acting director apologized and denied the activity was partisan.
"I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service that we provided," said IRS acting commissioner Steven Miller, who resigned on Wednesday. "The affected organizations and the American public deserve better."
Revelations surfaced last week from an inspector general report that found IRS officials in Cincinnati used inappropriate criteria for 18 months -- such as screening the names of groups that included "tea party" or "patriots" -- to order up additional scrutiny for tax-exempt applications.
The inspector general, Russell George, repeated the findings Friday, noting that even after the abuses were first revealed and halted, the local agency resumed screening again before it was finally stopped.
Miller, though, insisted the screenings were the result of mistakes, not, politics.
"Partisanship or even the appearance of partisanship has no place at the IRS," Miller said. "I do not believe that partisanship motivated the people who engaged in the practices."
"I think that what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their work load selection," he continued. "The listing described in the report, while intolerable, was a mistake, and not an act of partisanship."
He insisted that the IRS has corrected the problem. George testified that he found no evidence of malice or political motivation in the uneven reviews, or that they were directed from outside the agency.
But the top Democrat and Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee still hammered Miller.
"People were targeted for trying to make America a better place to live," said the committee chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
"What is now completely clear is that the management and oversight of the agency’s handling of tax-exemption applications have completely failed the American people," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) said.
In spite of the inspector general's statement that there was no evidence of political motivation, the sides diverged over whether the improper activity was evidence of broader bias on behalf of the Obama administration.
Camp insisted it was. "These revelations are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive, and too abusive of honest, hard-working taxpayers."
"I'm sure you're aware of the saying that the power to tax is the power to destroy," Camp added. "Under this administration, the IRS has abused its power to tax, and it has destroyed what little faith and hope the American people had in getting a fair shake in Washington."
Democrats noted that part of the problem the agency was dealing with was a huge surge in applications for tax-exempt status under the 501(c)4 section of the tax code, and that the vast majority of them were from conservative groups. Miller insisted that although screeners inappropriately issued a "be on the lookout" alert for the tea party as a shortcut, it could not be called targeting because they were still looking for signs of political activity in all groups.
Under IRS rules, tax-exempt organizations are supposed to spend the bulk of their time on social welfare activities, not politics.
Republicans could not understand how the singling out of conservative groups was not political targeting.
"You say it was not targeting, but why was only one side of the political spectrum singled out on this?" Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) asked.
Miller insisted the IRS evaluators merely "triaged" the situation in trying to deal with thousands of applications. He noted that only 70 of 300 applications that the inspector general flagged were actually tea party groups.
Several Republicans additionally demanded explanations for why donor records were demanded from groups.
Miller said that while sometimes it makes sense to seek such information -- for instance, if a conflict of interest is suspected -- the requests were too broad and were rescinded, or the records were destroyed.
George said there were 27 such requests, although only 13 were from tea party groups.
Republicans also tried to narrow down how sensitive tax data got leaked to the press, in two cases to the detriment of conservative groups, asking Miller repeatedly if he knew of any information being shared with the White House. Miller and George said it was through oversights, and that at least one worker had been disciplined.