WASHINGTON -- Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Friday he was first informed of an IRS investigation of groups seeking tax-exempt status in mid-March, but did not learn about the tax agency's targeting of conservative groups until last Friday.
Lew made his first public comments in the wake of the scandal during an appearance on Bloomberg TV's "Political Capital with Al Hunt." He said the IRS inspector general briefed him on several issues in mid-March, shortly after he assumed his role as treasury secretary. Those included an ongoing "project" on 501(c)4 groups, but Lew didn't get any details at the time.
"I learned the substance of this report last Friday when it became a matter of public knowledge," Lew said. "Before that, in mid March, I had had a conversation, just a getting-to-know-you conversation, with the inspector general right after I started, and he went through a number of items that were matters they were working on. And the topic of a project on the 501(c)3 [sic] issue was one of the things he briefed me was ongoing.
"I didn't know any of the details of it until last Friday. When I learned about it -- from the moment I learned about it, I was outraged," he added.
Lew's comments come on the same day acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama announced Miller's resignation on Thursday, after reports surfaced last week that IRS officials in Cincinnati had subjected groups applying for tax-exempt status to greater scrutiny if they had words like "tea party" and "patriot" in their names. The targeting took place over a period of 18 months leading up to the 2012 election, according to an IG report.
The IG report found the tax agency's actions were not politically motivated, but that lower-level staff acted out of incompetence and subordination. The report also stated that the behavior was not driven by the White House and "not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS." Still, questions have been raised about how much administration officials knew about the investigation and when they knew it.
Lew, who sought Miller's resignation, stressed there was a difference between knowing an investigation was ongoing and being aware of its findings. His department took immediate action once the report was public, he said. Lew also confirmed that his deputy Neal Wolin did not learn of the details until last Friday. At the congressional hearing earlier in the day, J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration, said he informed Wolin about the existence of the investigation in June 2012 but did not share any of its findings.
Lew also defended the Obama administration for not appointing a new permanent IRS commissioner, even though it was known for 13 months that former commissioner Douglas Shulman was resigning. Miller took over as acting commissioner when Shulman's term expired in November, but a replacement has not been nominated. Obama announced Thursday that Daniel Werfel, the controller of the Office of Management and Budget, would replace Miller as acting commissioner in June.