Updated: May 13, 2013 4:09PM
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senior officials at the U.S. tax agency knew agents were targeting conservative political groups as early as 2011, according to a draft of an inspector general’s report obtained by The Associated Press that seemingly contradicts public statements by the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
The IRS apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status. The agency blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware.
But on June 29, 2011, Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the watchdog’s report. At the meeting, she was told that groups with “Tea Party,” ‘‘Patriot” or “9/12 Project” in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny, the report says.
“Tea party” and “patriot” are favorite terms of the small-government conservative movement that has emerged in recent years and is highly critical of President Barack Obama. The 9-12 Project is a group started by conservative TV personality Glenn Beck.
The revelation that the IRS targeted those groups is becoming a new headache for the Obama administration, which is already confronting a highly polarized, partisan atmosphere in Washington.
Lerner instructed agents to change the criteria for flagging groups “immediately,” the report says.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the results of a nearly yearlong investigation in the coming week. The AP obtained part of the draft report, which has been shared with congressional aides.
Among the other revelations, on Aug. 4, 2011, staffers in the IRS’ Rulings and Agreements office “held a meeting with chief counsel so that everyone would have the latest information on the issue.”
On Jan. 25, 2012, the criteria for flagging suspect groups was changed to, “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement,” the report says.
While this was happening, several committees in Congress were writing IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman to express concern because tea party groups were complaining of IRS harassment.
In Shulman’s responses, he did not acknowledge targeting of tea party groups. At a congressional hearing March 22, 2012, Shulman was adamant in his denials.
The portion of the draft report reviewed by the AP does not say whether Shulman or anyone else in the Obama administration outside the IRS was informed of the targeting. It is standard procedure for agency heads to consult with staff before responding to congressional inquiries, but it is unclear how much information Shulman sought.
The IRS has not said when Shulman found out that Tea Party groups were targeted.
Shulman was appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican. His 6-year term ended in November. President Barack Obama has yet to nominate a successor. The agency is now run by an acting commissioner, Steven Miller.
The IRS said in a statement Saturday that the agency believes the timeline in the IG’s report is correct, and supports what officials said Friday.
“IRS senior leadership was not aware of this level of specific details at the time of the March 2012 hearing,” the statement said. “The timeline does not contradict the commissioner’s testimony. While exempt organizations officials knew of the situation earlier, the timeline reflects that IRS senior leadership did not have this level of detail.”
Lerner’s position is three levels below the commissioner.
“The timeline supports what the IRS acknowledged on Friday that mistakes were made,” the statement continued. “There were not partisan reasons behind this.”
Rep. Charles Boustany, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s oversight subcommittee, said the report “raises serious questions as to who at IRS, Treasury and in the administration knew about this, why this practice was allowed to continue for as long as it did, and how widespread it was.”
“This timeline reveals at least two extremely unethical actions by the IRS. One, as early as 2010, they targeted groups for political purposes. Two, they willfully and knowingly lied to Congress for years despite being aware that Congress was investigating this practice,” Boustany said.
Several congressional committees have promised investigations, including the Ways and Means Committee, which plans to hold a hearing.
On Friday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration expected the inspector general to conduct a thorough investigation, but he brushed aside calls for the White House itself to investigate.
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.