WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama ousted the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Wednesday amid the growing outcry over revelations that the agency had improperly targeted right-wing groups for scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status.
Obama said Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had asked for and accepted Steven T. Miller's resignation. Obama made no public criticism of Miller but spoke of inexcusable "misconduct" by IRS employees and said new leadership at the agency was critical.
"Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it," Obama said in a televised statement from the White House. "I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives."
Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating potential civil rights violations at the IRS, Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed earlier. Other potential crimes include making false statements to authorities and violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in some partisan political activities, Holder said.
"I can assure you and the American people that we will take a dispassionate view of this," Holder told the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing. "This will not be about parties, this will not be about ideological persuasions. Anybody who has broken the law will be held accountable."
Miller, a 25-year IRS veteran, took over the agency in November, when the five-year term of Commissioner Douglas Shulman ended.
In an email to employees, Miller said, "This has been an incredibly difficult time for the IRS given the events of the past few days, and there is a strong and immediate need to restore public trust in the nation's tax agency. I believe the Service will benefit from having a new acting commissioner in place during this challenging period."
At the time when tea party groups were targeted, Miller was a deputy commissioner overseeing the division that dealt with tax-exempt groups.
An inspector general's report does not indicate that Miller knew conservative groups were being targeted until after the practice ended. But documents show that Miller repeatedly failed to tell Congress that it had happened, even after he had been briefed on the matter.
The IRS said Miller was first informed on May, 3, 2012, that applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups were inappropriately singled out for extra, sometimes burdensome scrutiny.
At least twice after the briefing, Miller wrote letters to members of Congress to explain the process of reviewing applications for tax-exempt status without revealing that tea party groups had been targeted. On July 25, 2012, Miller testified on Capitol Hill but again was not candid on the issue -- despite being asked about it.
Legal experts said it could be difficult to prove that IRS officials or employees knowingly violated the civil rights of conservative groups. If there is a violation, the experts said, investigators can sometimes prove more easily that officials made false statements or obstructed justice in some other way.
"I think it's doubtful that any of these knuckleheads who engaged in the conduct that gave rise to this controversy knowingly believed that they were violating the law," said David H. Laufman, a former Justice Department lawyer. "But that remains to be seen. That's what investigations are for."