By Christi Parsons and Lisa Mascaro Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday condemned the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and vowed to punish anyone who may have taken part in it, as senators called for top IRS officials to resign and congressional committees prepared to investigate.
“I’ve got no patience with it,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Monday morning. “I will not tolerate it. And we’ll make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this.”
An official of the tax collections agency acknowledged Friday that conservative groups seeking nonprofit status were singled out for scrutiny during Obama’s first term in office. About 300 organizations were targeted, some because they had the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications.
Several senators called Monday for the firing or resignation of IRS officials as the political fallout over the agency’s targeting of conservative groups intensified on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called for Obama to fire the officials involved. “The actions of the IRS are unacceptable and un-American,” he said. “The president must immediately condemn this attack on our values, find those individuals in his administration who are responsible and fire them.”
One Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said the IRS commissioner must resign; however the agency has no one in that role. The position, which requires Senate confirmation, is now filled by an acting commissioner. The former commissioner completed a four-year term in November. The White House has yet to nominate a new commissioner.
Rubio’s office clarified that the senator was calling on Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller to resign, noting that he was a deputy commissioner at the time the incidents occurred.
Congressional Republicans have long suspected conservative groups were targeted, and have been investigating the issue since late 2011. House Republicans have promised an investigation and the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee said his committee would also investigate.
“The IRS should be prepared for a full investigation into this matter by the Senate Finance Committee,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. “The IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny.”
The IRS acknowledged Friday that it scrutinized the tax-exempt status of conservative groups during last year’s election. An inspector general’s report, due this week, will show that tea party groups were targeted in the application process for tax-exempt status; there were delays in processing returns of conservative political applications; and there were unnecessary questionnaires of conservative groups, according to GOP aides who asked for anonymity to discuss the unreleased report.
Speaking to reporters in the East Room, Obama said he learned of the matter from news reports last week. “I think it was on Friday,” he said.
He did not address a timeline from the upcoming inspector general’s report that indicates at least one top IRS official knew of the matter as early as June 29, 2011, long before the IRS commissioner adamantly denied such targeting efforts before Congress in March 2012.
Instead, Obama said he would not comment on the findings of the investigation. But he argued that Americans should be able to trust that the IRS is applying federal law in a nonpartisan way.
“If you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said. “It is contrary to our traditions, and people have to be held accountable and it’s got to be fixed.”