Barack Obama fired the most senior tax official in the US on Wednesday in an effort to bring a speedy end to a scandal over the targeting for special scrutiny of Tea Party organisations and other conservative groups.
Obama, speaking at the White House, described the conduct of the employees at the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati, Ohio, as “inexcusable”. He added: “I am angry about it.”
The president said that the Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, had asked the acting commissioner, Steven Miller, to resign and that Miller had done so.
Miller’s sacking followed an independent report by the Treasury’s inspector general, which found that the conduct in the IRS office in Cincinnati had been “inappropriate”. Officials had picked out groups with the words Tea Party or Patriots in their titles and subjected their requests for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny.
“The IRS has to operate with absolute integrity,” Obama said in his White House statement, saying he would hold those responsible accountable.
“Today secretary Lew took the first step by requesting and accepting the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS because, given the controversy surrounding this audit, it is important to institute new leadership that can help us restore confidence going forward,” Obama said.
He added that new safeguards would be put in place to prevent similar abuse in future and he would work with Congress to fix the problem.
The Obama administration over the last five years has successfully managed to avoid a damaging series of sackings and resignations. Miller is one of the biggest victims yet of political scandal.
The move came as the White House battled on three fronts – the IRS, the seizure of phone records of the Associated Press and the Benghazi killings. The administration hopes that by acting to remove Miller, it will at least be able to quell the furore over the IRS.
In a sign that the firing may dampen the row, Republican congressman Darrell Issa, a leading critic of the Obama administration, described on CNN the sacking as “an extremely good first step” and that Obama had set the right tone.
The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, was less upbeat, saying: “More than two years after the problem began, and a year after the IRS told us there was no problem, the president is beginning to take action. If the president is as concerned about this issue as he claims, he’ll work openly and transparently with Congress to get to the bottom of the scandal – no stonewalling, no half-answers, no withholding of witnesses.”
Miller, in an effort to save his job, had earlier identified two employees in Cincinnati as being “overly aggressive” in handling requests for conservative groups.
At a bumpy congressional hearing on Tuesday, Eric Holder, the attorney general, was confronted with questions on a range of thorny issues, including the IRS.
Holder, who has already announced an FBI investigation into the affair, told the House judiciary committee that people would be held accountable. “As of Friday last week, I ordered that a criminal investigation begin … the facts will take us wherever they take us,” he said.
All 45 Republican senators signed a letter to Obama asking his administration to fully comply with the congressional investigation into the IRS.
“The American people deserve to know what actions will be taken to ensure those who made these policy decisions at the IRS are being held fully accountable and more importantly what is being done to ensure that this kind of raw partisanship is fully eliminated from these critically important non-partisan government functions,” they said.
House speaker John Boehner, at his weekly press conference, echoed that sentiment. “My question isn’t about who’s going to resign, my question is, who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
Former White House adviser David Axelrod, in a television interview, insisted those in the IRS responsible had not been put up to it by the White House. “Also, one prima facie evidence that nobody political was involved in this, was that if anybody political was involved in this, they would say: ‘Are you kidding me? Are you nuts? What are you doing?’” Axelrod said.