I.R.S. Chief Out After Protest Over Scrutiny of Groups
President Obama, who also honored law enforcement officers Wednesday, said the I.R.S. had to be above the political fray.
WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Wednesday night that the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service had been ousted after disclosures that the agency gave special scrutiny to conservative groups. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., meanwhile, warned top I.R.S. officials that a Justice Department inquiry would examine any false statements to see if they constituted a crime.
Speaking in the White House’s formal East Room, Mr. Obama said Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew had asked for and accepted the resignation of the acting commissioner, Steven Miller, who as deputy commissioner was aware of the agency’s efforts to demand more information from conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in early 2012.
“Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” Mr. Obama said. “It should not matter what political stripe you’re from. The fact of the matter is the I.R.S. has to operate with absolute integrity.”
Mr. Miller, who told agency employees that he would leave the administration in early June, is scheduled to testify Friday before the House Ways and Means Committee in the first of a series of hearings on the I.R.S. activities.
The president acted as his administration broadly stepped up pressure on the I.R.S. — and sought to insulate itself from the outcry over the agency’s conduct. Mr. Obama spoke to reporters after an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Lew and his deputy, Neil Wolin, who will be responsible for carrying out the president’s orders to install safeguards to prevent a similar effort.
In an internal message to employees, Mr. Miller, a 25-year veteran of the I.R.S., wrote: “This has been an incredibly difficult time for the I.R.S., given the events of the past few days, and there is a strong and immediate need to restore public trust in the nation’s tax agency. I believe the service will benefit from having a new acting commissioner.”
Mr. Holder’s warning came as lawmakers stated unequivocally that I.R.S. officials had lied to them in failing to disclose the added screening despite being pressed repeatedly.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Mr. Holder said the Justice Department would investigate whether the civil rights of groups or individuals, and statutes governing I.R.S. conduct, had been violated. But Mr. Holder also said, “False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point.”
Members of Congress from both parties, meanwhile, prepared a gantlet of hearings for I.R.S. leaders in the coming days. The House Ways and Means Committee will hold the first hearing on Friday, featuring Mr. Miller, who was aware of the problem in March 2012, yet told Republican senators a month later that no such singling out had occurred.
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee will hold its first hearing on the matter, and the next day, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear the testimony of Lois Lerner, who heads the I.R.S.’s division on tax-exempt organizations and was aware of the issue nearly from the beginning, in 2010, yet told reporters on Friday that she had learned of it from news reports in 2012.
“Lois Lerner lied to me,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, who helped initiate the Congressional investigation of the I.R.S.
The House Oversight Committee requested five senior I.R.S. officials be made available for interviews by May 20, including the director of rulings and agreements, Holly Paz; a former screening group manager in the exempt-organizations determinations division, John Shafer; and a former advocacy group manager, Joseph Herr.
“Potentially dozens of I.R.S. employees are involved with the original targeting, the failure to correct the problem and the failure to promptly report the truth to Congress and the American people,” said Meghan Snyder, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jordan.