WASHINGTON — Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved in the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.
IRS officials at the agency's Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea party-affiliated groups.
IRS employees in Cincinnati also told conservatives seeking the status of "social welfare" groups a task force in Washington was overseeing applications, according to interviews with the activists.
Lois Lerner, who oversees tax-exempt groups for the IRS, told reporters on Friday that the "absolutely inappropriate" actions were undertaken by "front-line people" working in Cincinnati to target groups with "tea party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names.
In one instance, however, Ron Bell, an IRS employee, informed an attorney representing a conservative group focused on voter fraud that the application was under review in Washington. On several other occasions, IRS officials in Washington and California sent conservative groups detailed questionnaires about their voter outreach and other activities, according to the documents.
"For the IRS to say it was some low-level group in Cincinnati is simply false," said Cleta Mitchell, a partner in the law firm Foley & Lardner who sought to communicate with IRS headquarters about the delay in granting tax-exempt status to True the Vote.
Moreover, details of the IRS's efforts to target conservative groups reached the highest levels of the agency in May 2012, far earlier than has been disclosed, the Washington Post reported, citing Republican congressional aides briefed by the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration on the details of their reviews.
Then commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who stepped down in November, received a briefing from the inspector general about what was happening in the Cincinnati office in May 2012, the aides said. His deputy and the agency's current acting commissioner, Steven Miller, also learned about the matter that month, the report said.
The officials did not share details with Republican lawmakers who had been demanding to know whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups, Republicans said.
"I wrote to the IRS three times last year after hearing concerns that conservative groups were being targeted," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement Monday. "In response to the first letter I sent with some of my colleagues, Steven Miller, the current acting IRS commissioner, responded that these groups weren't being targeted."
"Knowing what we know now," he added, "the IRS was at best being far from forthcoming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress."
Democrats and Republicans alike Monday decried the agency's actions as an unacceptable abuse of power.
In a news conference on Monday, President Barack Obama said he learned of it in media reports on Friday and has "no patience with it."
"If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous," Obama said. "And there's no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable."
On Capitol Hill, two Senate panels — the Finance Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — announced Monday that they will investigate. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Ways and Means Committee have been looking into IRS attempts to single out organizations on the right for heightened scrutiny. Ways and Means has called IRS officials to testify Friday.
"These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public's trust," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.
Separately, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, introduced companion bills Monday that would require the IRS to fire any employee found "willfully" violating "the constitutional rights of a taxpayer." The bills also would make them criminally liable for their actions.
Even as Obama vowed that his administration "will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this," the IRS offered no new information on how it selected which groups to single out for scrutiny.
The White House is legally prohibited from contacting the IRS about a tax matter, under a prohibition adopted after the Watergate scandal. And although it can contact the Treasury Department about tax issues, neither Treasury nor the IRS can disclose specific taxpayer information.
Obama is not in a position to remove Lerner, a career official who can be terminated for cause only under normal civil service proceedings. The IRS has two political appointees: the commissioner, who serves a five-year term, and the chief counsel.
As the IRS came under broader political attack Monday, more details surfaced on how the tax-exempt organizations division struggled to determine which nonprofits should receive "social welfare" status.
In a Jan. 9, 2012, letter to the Richmond Tea Party, IRS specialist Stephen Seok asked questions including "the names of the donors, contributors and grantors," as well as the size of the contributions and grants, and when they were given.
Richmond Tea Party president Larry Nordvig, whose group applied for tax-exempt status in December 2009 and received it in July 2012, said the extended inquiry had "a very chilling effect" on how much money the group could raise because its donors preferred anonymity.
The Wetumpka Tea Party of Alabama experienced a two-year delay after submitting its initial application.
Becky Gerritson, the group's president, said the IRS sent a questionnaire asking for the names of volunteers, donor identification and contribution amounts, the names of any legislators its members had communicated with, and the contents of all speeches its members had made.
"I was outraged," Gerritson said. "Being an election year, I felt like it was intimidation."