President Barack Obama has called the practices of tax workers who unfairly targeted conservative political groups "intolerable." The attorney general meanwhile has launched a criminal investigation into the controversy.
Obama moved quickly Tuesday to respond to a report by a US government watchdog that found the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) singled out grass roots political groups, including conservative organizations opposed to the president.
"The report's findings are intolerable and inexcusable," Obama said in a written statement, adding that he ordered Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to hold "those responsible for these failures accountable."
"The IRS must apply the law in a fair and impartial way, and its employees must act with utmost integrity," Obama said. "This report shows that some of its employees failed that test."
The US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) said the IRS used "inappropriate criteria" when it unfairly targeted groups based on their names. The report noted long delays, excessive requests for donor information and general dysfunction in handling cases.
Starting in 2010, IRS agents in an Ohio field office screened thousands of non-profit group applications for tax-exempt status for keywords including "Tea Party" and "Patriot."
The practice of singling out only conservative groups for extra scrutiny gave "the appearance that the IRS is not impartial in conducting its mission," the TIGTA report said.
The IRS responded to the report in a statement, admitting that "inappropriate shortcuts were used" to screen groups for political activity.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was launching a criminal investigation into the IRS' targeting of conservative groups. Holder called the agency's conduct "outrageous and unacceptable," but added he wasn't sure which laws may have been broken.
The IRS has blamed low-level employees in its Ohio office for the unfair practices, saying they weren't politically motivated and that senior officials in the agency were unaware.
"We believe the frontline career employees that made the decisions acted out of a desire for efficiency and not out of any political or partisan viewpoint," wrote IRS acting commissioner for tax exempt and government entities, Joseph Grant.
Grant added the issues had been resolved and that "significant improvements in this area are in place, and we are confident that what transpired here will not reoccur."
dr/hc (AP, Reuters, AFP)