WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for subjecting Tea Party groups to additional scrutiny during the 2012 election, but denied any political motive.
Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt groups, said organizations that included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status were singled out for additional reviews. Her remarks came at an American Bar Association gathering.
Lerner said the practice, initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati, was wrong.
"That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review," Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association.
"The IRS would like to apologize for that," she added.
In a follow-up statement, the IRS said it has fixed the system, and that an influx of tax-exempt applications in an election year contributed to the problem. "Mistakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale," said the statement from IRS spokeswoman Sara Eguren.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked the White House to conduct a government-wide review to ensure "that these thuggish practices are not underway at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views."
Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, said the apology wasn't good enough. She called on the IRS workers involved to resign and Congress to investigate.
"The IRS has demonstrated the most disturbing, illegal and outrageous abuse of government power," Martin said in a statement."This deliberate targeting and harassment of tea party groups reaches a new low in illegal government activity and overreach. It is suspicious that the activity of these 'low-level workers' was unknown to IRS leadership at the time it occurred."
Conservative groups complained during the election that they were being harassed by the IRS. They said the agency asked them an inordinate number of questions to justify their tax-exempt status, and 27 Tea Party groups joined with conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice to push back on the IRS.
Kentucky 9/12 Project is one of the conservative organizations that joined with Sekulow to complain of government overreach.
Its executive director, Eric Wilson, said his group applied for tax-exempt status in December 2010. He said the IRS responded with an 88-page questionnaire that sought all the organization's correspondence, the names of its members -- along with details of group's activity on Facebook and Twitter. It was eventually granted its nonprofit designation last month.
"I would love to say that I feel vindicated, but to think that the government has the capability to reach into the lives of people in our organization is not only scary but describes the times we live in today," Wilson said of the apology.
Certain tax-exempt charitable groups can conduct political activities but it cannot be their primary activity.
Congressional Republicans expressed surprise at the apology, even after pushing the IRS to explain persistent questioning of Tea Party groups since 2011.
In March 2012, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., asked the IRS to explain why it was "questioning new tax-exempt applicants, including grassroots political entities such as Tea Party groups, about their operations and donors."
In response, the IRS acknowledged last June that there were backlogs in processing tax-exempt determinations for political groups, which were attributed to a spike in applications during an election year. But IRS Deputy Commissioner Steven T. Miller then assured Boustany that the office "took steps to coordinate the handling of the cases to ensure consistency."
"As sometimes happens, however, coordination efforts resulted in some cases being in inventory for a longer time than expected," he wrote.
Boustany, chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the IRS had repeatedly denied the allegations.
"Despite their unwillingness to cooperate, more than a year later, the IRS has now admitted to what we long suspected - it was targeting tea party groups," Boustany said in a statement. "The IRS's 'too little too late' response is unacceptable, and I will continue to work to ensure there are protections in place so no American, regardless of political affiliation, has their right to free speech threatened by the IRS."