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IRS tea party scandal unlikely to fade as Congress plans investigations

The IRS has apologized for targeting tea party groups. But that hasn’t satisfied critics pushing for congressional investigations, and they’re still waiting for President Obama to speak out.

Conspiracy theories aside, there’s no evidence that the Obama White House had anything to do with Internal Revenue Service bureaucrats targeting tea party-type organizations for special tax scrutiny.

That’s despite new information that senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting such groups as early as 2011, according to a draft of an inspector general’s report obtained by the Associated Press that seems to contradict public statements by the IRS commissioner.

Still, as Time political columnist Joe Klein writes this weekend, “the absence of scandal is not the presence of competence.”

“Yet again, we have an example of Democrats simply not managing the government properly and with discipline,” Klein writes. “This is just poisonous at a time of skepticism about the efficacy of government…. [Obama’s] unwillingness to concentrate – and I mean concentrate obsessively – on making sure that government is managed efficiently will be part of his legacy.”

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So far, the White House response seems a bit anemic, a bit hands-off. On Saturday, press secretary Jay Carney said the President believes government agencies should be staffed with “the very best public servants with the highest levels of integrity.”

The President “is concerned that the conduct of a small number of Internal Revenue Service employees may have fallen short of that standard,” Carney said.

Given what’s been revealed in the inspector general’s report, such statements likely will not quell the criticism.

“It is absolutely chilling that the IRS was singling out conservative groups for extra review,” US Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

“The president needs to make crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable in America,” she said. “I think that it’s very disappointing that the president hasn’t personally condemned this and spoken out.”

As first reported by the AP, in June, 2011, Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, learned at a meeting that groups with “Tea Party,” ”Patriot” or “9/12 Project” in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny.

The following January, 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 IG’s report says.

About 300 applications were initially flagged for closer scrutiny, 75 of which were chosen based on names including those key words. In the end, according to the IRS, none were denied the tax-exempt status they had applied for, although some withdrew their applications.

Each year the IRS reviews as many as 60,000 tax-exempt applications from groups ranging from charities to labor unions, reports Reuters.

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Such organizations can collect money from anonymous donors and spend it on advertising. But in order to get and keep their tax-exempt status, they can’t endorse a political candidate or a political party. Coinciding in part with the surge of Tea Party enthusiasm, the number of groups seeking tax-exempt status more than doubled from 2010 to 2012, to more than 3,400.

But despite the increased workload and the apparent effort to identify groups whose political activities crossed the tax-exempt line, focusing on “tea party” and “patriot” was bound to create a partisan firestorm.

Now, groups across the political spectrum suspect that they too might have been picked for special IRS scrutiny. BuzzFeed reports that one “hawkishly pro-Israel” group believes that it was targeted by the IRS over its opposition to President Obama’s Israel policy.

Congressional Republicans promise a series of investigative hearings.

“While I’m glad that the IRS has apologized for this misconduct, that is simply not enough,” USSen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said Saturday. “We need to know more. We need to know who was behind this unlawful activity, when it began, who found out about it, when they found out, and what they did or did not do to correct it.”

As Lauren French and Kelsey Snell of Politico write, “the IRS doesn’t have many friends on a good day,” and now it seems to be “an agency under siege, facing its worst public relations debacle in years.”

That lack of friends in Congress is bipartisan.

“We shouldn’t rush to judgment,” says Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) ofMontana. “But targeting groups based solely on their political views is not only inappropriate, it is intolerable.”

The IRS inspector general’s full report is scheduled to be released this coming week.