President Barack Obama speaks during a joint news conference on Monday in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Monday he will not tolerate political bias at the Internal Revenue Service and promised to get to the bottom of the agency's admitted targeting of conservative groups.
Obama, in his first comments on the revelations of political targeting at the tax agency, said he learned about them from the initial news reports Friday. With a growing list of congressional panels saying they will investigate the matter, Obama said people are properly concerned.
"You don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate," Obama said at a news conference Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House. He called the revelations of targeting "outrageous."
"I've got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it, and we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this," the president added.
On Friday, the IRS apologized for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of groups with conservative titles such as "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their applications. Republicans have challenged the tax agency's claim that the practice was initiated by low-level workers.
"I just don't buy that this was a couple of rogue IRS employees," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "After all, groups with 'progressive' in their names were not targeted similarly."
If it were just a small number of employees, she said, "then you would think that the high-level IRS supervisors would have rushed to make this public, fired the employees involved, apologized to the American people and informed Congress. None of that happened in a timely way."
The IRS said Friday that it was sorry for what it called the "inappropriate" targeting of the conservative groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status. The agency said no high-level officials were aware.
But according to a draft of a watchdog's report obtained Saturday by The Associated Press that seemingly contradicts public statements by the IRS commissioner, senior IRS officials knew agents were targeting tea party groups as early as 2011.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the Finance Committee that he chairs will investigate the matter, the first in the Democratic-controlled Senate to announce an investigation. In the GOP-controlled House, the Ways and Means Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also are investigating.
The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration is expected to release the results of its nearly yearlong investigation in the coming week.
Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, said last week that the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias.
But on June 29, 2011, Lerner learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the watchdog's report. At the meeting, she was told that groups with "Tea Party," ''Patriot" or "9/12 Project" in their names were being flagged for additional and often burdensome scrutiny, the report says.
The 9/12 Project is a group started by conservative TV personality Glenn Beck.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said "the conclusion that the IRS came to is that they did have agents who were engaged in intimidation of political groups is as dangerous a problem" as the government can have.
He added, "This should send a chill up your spine. ... I don't know where it stops or who is involved."
Congressional Republicans already are conducting several investigations and asked for more.
"This mea culpa is not an honest one," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Collins said the revelations about the nation's tax agency only contribute to "the profound distrust that the American people have in government. It is absolutely chilling that the IRS was singling out conservative groups for extra review."
The IRS' Lerner said that about 300 groups were singled out for additional review, with about one-quarter scrutinized because they had "tea party" or "patriot" somewhere in their applications.
She said 150 of the cases have been closed and no group had its tax-exempt status revoked, though some withdrew their applications.