Outgoing IRS Commissioner Steven Miller apologized Friday on behalf of the federal tax collection agency for unfairly targeting conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But Miller insisted the practice was "absolutely not illegal."
The IRS is under fire for placing heavier scrutiny on organizations with words like "tea party" or "patriots" in their name when they applied for nonprofit status between 2010 and 2012, according to a report unveiled this week by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration.
"It is absolutely not illegal," Miller said during an exchange with Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price during a four-hour House Ways and Means Committee hearing.
"Do you believe it is illegal for employees of the IRS to create lists, to target individual groups and citizens in this country?" Price responded.
"I think the Treasury inspector general indicated it might not be, but others will be able to tell that," Miller said.
"What do you believe?" Price asked.
"I don't believe it is," Miller said, adding, "I don't believe it should happen. Please don't get me wrong. It should not happen."
Miller, who was appointed acting commissioner of the agency in November 2012, was deputy commissioner for services and enforcement during the period the scrutiny of conservative groups was taking place. He opened the hearing Friday morning with a brief statement in which he apologized for the IRS' actions and said that "foolish mistakes were made." He aggressively pushed back against accusations that the agency's decisions were politically motivated.
“I do not believe that partisanship motivated the people that engaged in the practices described in the inspector general’s report,” Miller said. “Foolish mistakes were made by people who were trying to be more efficient in their work.”
Sitting next to Miller at the hearing, Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George testified that in his investigation he "did not" find evidence that the agency's decisions were motivated by politics.
Lawmakers from both parties grilled Miller through the morning and into the early afternoon, posing questions on when he learned of the agency's practices, why the agency singled out organizations with conservative leanings for heavier scrutiny and whether the IRS disclosed private tax information to other government agencies.
Miller repeatedly denied that the IRS intentionally used political criteria to determine levels of scrutiny on groups applying for tax-exempt status.
"Generally, we provided horrible customer service here. I will admit that, we did," Miller said when questioned by Rep. Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican. "Horrible customer service. Whether it is politically motivated or not is a very different question."
When asked to point to specific employees within the IRS who were responsible, Miller declined. “I don’t have names for you,” he told Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady.
California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes questioned Miller about why he resigned from his position as a result of the IRS' practices. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama announced that Miller would step down.
"I never said I didn't do anything wrong, Mr. Nunes," Miller said. "I resigned because, as the acting commissioner, what happens in the IRS, whether I was personally involved or not, stops at my desk. So I should be held accountable for what happens. Whether I was personally involved or not are very different questions, sir."
Friday's hearing is the first hearing since the IRS practices became known last week. The House Oversight Committee will hold its own hearing next Wednesday with former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who led the agency from 2008 to November 2012.