WASHINGTON, D.C. - A top White House adviser insisted Sunday that President Barack Obama learned the Internal Revenue Service had targeted tea party groups only "when it came out in the news" while Republicans continued to press the administration for more answers.
Trying to move past a challenging week that put the White House on the defensive, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer was scheduled to appear on five Sunday news shows to repeat the administration's position that no senior officials were involved in the decision to give tea party groups extra scrutiny. Pfeiffer's appearances were unlikely to quiet GOP critics, who have seized on the revelations as proof that Obama used the IRS to go after his political enemies.
"The deputy secretary of the treasury was made aware of just the fact that the investigation was beginning last year," Pfeiffer said. "But no one in the White House was aware."
A Treasury Department inspector's report said this week that conservative and small-government tea party groups that were critical of Obama received extra scrutiny from the Cincinnati IRS office, which screens applications for tax-exempt status. IRS agents did not flag similar progressive or liberal groups, according to the watchdog.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested there was a written policy to target conservative groups opposing the president, but when pressed could not provide details.
"I haven't seen a policy statement, but I think we need to see that," Paul said. "And when that comes forward, we need to know who wrote the policy and who approved the policy."
Regardless of when the president first learned of the investigations, Pfeiffer said the president wanted to ensure such activities were not repeated.
"The activity was outrageous and inexcusable, and it was stopped and it needs to be fixed to ensure it never happens again," Pfeiffer said.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said a special investigation might be needed.
"I think a special counsel is going to wind up being necessary," he said.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., disputed that.
"I don't see the point," Menendez said.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said the IRS had stepped so far over its mandate that it asked book groups for reading lists and church groups about their prayers before granting them tax-exempt standing. It's government over-reach, he said, and a reason why Republicans need to have their own investigation into the agency.
"This is about trust," Price said.
But he stopped short of calling for a special counsel.
Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., said Republicans were using the incidents to embarrass the president.
"There is no Republican agenda other than to stop the president of the United States," he said.
The Treasury report concluded that Cincinnati IRS workers improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for more than 18 months and took no action on many of their applications for long periods of time — hindering their fundraising for the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee last Friday, J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector who issued the report, blamed "gross mismanagement" of the Cincinnati IRS office for the improper activities. His report, based on interviews in Cincinnati and Washington, mainly criticized supervisors in Washington who were overseeing Cincinnati workers.
George reiterated Friday that IRS officials said they were not politically pressured to target conservative groups.
"We have no evidence at this time to contradict that assertion," he told the committee, but he said he is continuing to ask that question.
Five IRS workers believed to be from the Cincinnati office have been asked to give transcribed interviews with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform before that panel holds a hearing Wednesday.
WCPO I-Team investigator Jason Law confirmed they are John Shafer, a screening manager who began in March 2012; Gary Muthert, a screener who also began in March 2012; Liz Hofacre, a case coordinator from April 2010 to October 2010; Joseph Herr, a group manager from April 2010 to August 2010, and Holly Paz, former IRS manager in Cincinnati .
Paz is currently the director of the office rulings and agreements for the IRS in Washington. But according to George's testimony Friday, Paz was a manager at the Cincinnati IRS office during the scrutiny of conservative groups.
"She was the acting director for a significant period of time that this was occurring," George said.
The head of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), did not explain why these five employees were chosen for inteviews and made no accusations that they engaged in criminal activity
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