Barack Obama has delivered his first public response to allegations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny, describing it as outrageous and promising a thorough inquiry.
Obama, at a joint press conference with British prime minister David Cameron at the White House, said: "I have no patience with it. I will not tolerate it and we will make sure we find out exactly what happened on this."
The White House was joined by leading Democrats in Congress in denouncing any sign of partisanship by the IRS.
The IRS apologised on Friday for singling out conservative groups with the words "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their names and subjecting them to more scrutiny than others when deciding whether they were eligible for tax exemption status. The alleged abuse began in March 2010.
An investigation by the inspector general into the allegations is due to be published later this week. Republicans over the weekend expressed outrage over what they described as intolerable intrusion and interference and questioned whether it had been politically motivated.
On Monday night the Reuters news agency said it had seen documents showing that higher-level IRS officials had know as far back as August 2011 that the Tea Party and other conservative groups were being targeted.
Reuters said the documents showed the offices of the IRS's chief counsel and deputy commissioner for services and enforcement communicated about the targeting with lower-level officials on 4 August 2011 and 8 March 2012. In late March 2012 Doug Shulman, then the commissioner of the IRS, told congressional panels that no groups were being targeted for extra scrutiny.
The IRS, in a statement, has apologised and said that staff had highlighted applications from certain groups as a shortcut because of the large number of organisations seeking tax exemptions. The problem appears to be that groups with adjectives such as "progressive" were not subjected to the same scrutiny.
Tea Party groups have said an apology is insufficient and called for a full investigation by Congress. Outrage was expressed by both Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic head of the Senate finance committee, Max Baucus, promised his committee will hold an investigation as did the Republican-led House ways and means committee.
The White House on Saturday issued a statement saying that Obama was concerned that a small number of IRS employees may have fallen short of the standards demanded but the president expanded on that on Monday.
At the press conference, Obama said he had first learned about the reports at the same time as everyone else on Friday from the press. "This is pretty straightforward. If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there is no place for it and they have to be held fully accountable because the IRS, as an independent agency, requires absolute integrity and people have to have confidence that the are applying the laws in a non-partisan way," Obama said.
"You should feel that way regardless of party. I don't care whether you are a Democrat, an independent or a Republican. At some point there is going to be Republican administrations. At some point there are going to be Democratic ones. Either way, you don't want the IRS being perceived as biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate. It is something people are properly concerned about."
Obama added: "The IG is conducting an investigation. And I am not going to comment on their specific findings prematurely but I can tell you that if you have got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions and people have to be held accountable and it has got to be fixed. We will wait to see what exactly all the facts are."
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, also distanced the Democrats from the row. In he wrote on Twitter: "Very troubled by IRS's possible breach of the public's trust. Targeting any group based on its political stance is completely inappropriate."
The IRS has maintained that its senior leadership did not know for some time that lower-level agents were applying extra scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from groups with the key words in their names.
The agency said in a statement on Monday that Steven Miller, who is now acting IRS commissioner, was first informed in early May 2012 that some groups seeking tax-exempt status had been "improperly identified by name" and subjected to extra scrutiny.
A report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (Tigta), an independent IRS watchdog, on the targeting of the groups is due to be made public this week. Portions of it obtained by Reuters over the weekend listed the meetings that took place between lower-level staff and the unnamed senior officials. Miller was IRS deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the time of an 8 March 2012 email exchange in which the Tigta documents say his office took part.
No individuals are named by Tigta. The watchdog's report says that on 8 March 2012 "the deputy commissioner for services and enforcement requested that if a taxpayer called about having to provide donor information, the determinations unit would allow them to not send the donor names" but be told they might need to provide them later.
Miller has been leading the IRS following the November 2012 departure of Shulman, who stepped down as chief of the agency when his term expired. Miller also remains deputy commissioner for services and enforcement.
Reuters said the Tigta documents also mentioned a 4 August 2011 meeting about the targeting between lower-level officials and the office of the IRS chief counsel, but again no names are listed. William Wilkins was then, and is now, the IRS chief counsel.