WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Barack Obama’s ousting of the federal tax agency’s chief is unlikely to quell the outcry over the Internal Revenue Service’s improper targeting of conservative groups. Three congressional committees are investigating and the FBI is looking into potential civil rights violations.
Obama, who had been criticized for appearing passive in his response to one of the latest scandals to hit his administration, promised new safeguards would be put in place to prevent a recurrence of the actions at the Internal Revenue Service. He fired Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on Wednesday and is expected to nominate a replacement this week.
“I think we’re going to be able to fix it,” Obama said at a press conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He vowed to make sure the agency is “doing its job scrupulously and without even a hint of bias.”
The IRS controversy is one of several dogging the Obama administration, including its response to last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and the seizure of Associated Press phone records in a leak investigation. The trio of tempests has emboldened opposition Republicans as they seek to stymie Obama’s second-term agenda ahead of next year’s congressional elections.
The demise of the acting IRS head came five days after an agency supervisor publicly revealed that agents had improperly targeted some conservative groups that had applied for tax exempt status. It came a day after an inspector general’s report blamed ineffective management in Washington for allowing the targeting of tea party groups and other conservative organizations to happen for more than 18 months.
Miller’s departure hardly ends the IRS matter. Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier Wednesday that the FBI is looking into potential civil rights violations at the IRS,
Other potential crimes include making false statements to authorities and violating a law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities, Holder said.
The IRS started targeting groups with “Tea Party,” `’Patriots” or “9/12 Project” in their applications for tax exempt status in March 2010, the inspector general’s report said. By August 2010, it was part of the written criteria used to flag groups for additional scrutiny.
Tea party groups generally advocate limited government. They emerged after Obama took office and take their name from the 1773 protest in Boston by American colonists against taxation without representation in the British government.
As the IRS investigation widened, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, told reporters Wednesday, “My question is, who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
Miller, a 25-year IRS veteran, became acting commissioner in November, after Commissioner Douglas Shulman completed his five-year term. Shulman had been appointed by President George W. Bush.
Obama has yet to nominate a permanent successor. A new acting commissioner was not announced Wednesday evening.
At the time when tea party groups were targeted, Miller was a deputy commissioner who oversaw the division that dealt with tax-exempt organizations.
A report by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration does not indicate that Miller knew conservative groups were being targeted until after the practice ended. But documents show that Miller repeatedly failed to tell Congress that tea party groups were being targeted, even after he had been briefed on the matter.
The IRS said Miller was first informed on May, 3, 2012, that applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra, sometimes burdensome scrutiny.
At least twice after the briefing, Miller wrote letters to members of Congress to explain the process of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status without revealing that tea party groups had been targeted. On July 25, 2012, Miller testified before a House subcommittee but again was not forthcoming on the issue _ despite being asked about it.
In all, members of Congress sent at least eight letters to the IRS over the past two years, asking about complaints from conservative groups that they were being harassed by the IRS. None of the IRS responses acknowledged that conservative groups were targeted.
The Justice department opened its criminal investigation on Friday, Holder said.
But, Holder said, it will take time to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing.
Legal experts, however, said it could be difficult to prove that IRS officials or employees knowingly violated the civil rights of conservative groups. If there is a violation, the experts said, investigators can sometimes prove more easily that officials made false statements or obstructed justice in some other way.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
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