Responding to a report in The Washington Times on unauthorized snooping
into federal tax records of political candidates and donors, the IRS said
Tuesday that a case involving a deliberate breach of privacy was not committed
by anyone working for the agency.
"The IRS understands that the willful violation was not by an IRS employee," the agency said in a statement to The Times, responding to a report that the agency's inspector general had uncovered an instance of a "willful" attempt by a government official to improperly access federal tax records.
The inspector general, J. Russell George, also found three other cases in which records of candidates and donors were accessed inappropriately, but he concluded that those were "inadvertent," according to information he provided to Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
Mr. George also told Mr. Grassley that his office is investigating two other allegations that political candidates were targeted for IRS audits.
In its statement, the Internal Revenue Service said the agency "takes its role to protect confidential taxpayer information very seriously."
The findings have emerged as Congress prepares to take another look at IRS scrutiny of conservative tax-exempt groups. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to examine the latest information on that scandal.
Mr. George released a report in May that found the agency targeted groups that had "tea party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names, subjecting their applications for tax-exempt status to special, invasive questions.
Republicans have said it was part of a pattern of Obama administration officials trying to silence conservatives, while Democrats have argued that the scrutiny was overzealous but not politically motivated.
But in a memo Tuesday, Democrats said they have reviewed the committee's interviews with 15 IRS employees and found no evidence of political motives in targeting the conservative groups.
"Despite an extremely aggressive investigation involving thousands of documents and more than a dozen interviews of IRS employees, the overwhelming evidence before the committee reveals no political motivation or White House involvement in this process," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee.
Democrats have argued that because words such as "progressive" also were included on so-called BOLO (be on the lookout) lists used by IRS employees, politics didn't play a role.
But Rep. Darrell E. Issa, the committee chairman heading the congressional investigation, said that a group getting flagged is different from the intense scrutiny given to conservative groups.
Mr. George said late last month that some progressive groups were subject to special scrutiny, but every group with a catchphrase conservative name was targeted.
Mr. George is scheduled to testify at Thursday's hearing along with two of his employees. One current IRS employee and a former IRS employee also are slated to testify.
Mr. George finds himself at the center of attention from all sides, and Democrats have insisted he answer questions about what they say is conflicting information he has given.
He also is in demand from lawmakers seeking to pursue other avenues. Mr. Grassley, for instance, is looking into accusations that government employees accessed tax information of political candidates or donors.
Mr. George said his office referred the one "willful" violation to the Justice Department, but officials there declined to prosecute. Mr. Grassley has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to explain why the department decided against prosecuting.
The IRS said it cannot discuss specifics of any taxpayer case because of federal law but that the agency takes its mission seriously.
"The IRS conducts annual training and certification to ensure all employees are fully aware of their responsibility to protect the confidentiality of tax return information," the statement said. "Allegations of unauthorized access or inspection of taxpayer records are immediately reported to TIGTA."
The White House said Tuesday that President Obama has confidence in the man he has chosen to clean up the IRS.
"The president has a lot of confidence in Danny Werfel," White House press secretary Jay Carney said when questioned about The Times' report at his daily press briefing. "He's made clear from the day he started his intention to examine the practices of the past and to make the necessary corrections where they're needed."
The president tapped Mr. Werfel, a former White House budget official, to lead the IRS this spring after officials acknowledged the agency improperly targeted conservative groups.
-- Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.
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