WASHINGTON - The Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see if they were violating their tax-exempt status.
IRS agents singled out dozens of organizations for additional reviews because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their exemption applications, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups. In some cases, groups were asked for lists of donors, which violates IRS policy in most cases, she said.
The agency - led at the time by a Bush administration appointee - blamed low-level employees, saying no high-level officials were aware. But that wasn't good enough for Republicans in Congress, who are conducting several investigations and asked for more.
"I call on the White House to conduct a transparent, government-wide review aimed at assuring the American people that these thuggish practices are not under way at the IRS or elsewhere in the administration against anyone, regardless of their political views," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declared it was indeed inappropriate for the IRS to target tea party groups. But he brushed aside questions about whether the White House would investigate. Instead, he said the administration expects a thorough investigation by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration. The inspector general has been looking into the issue since last summer, and his report is expected next week, the IG's office said Friday.
Carney said he did not know when the White House first learned that tea party groups were being targeted.
Lerner acknowledged it was wrong for the agency to target groups based on political affiliation.
"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.
About 75 groups were inappropriately targeted. None had their tax-exempt status revoked, Lerner said.
The IRS is an independent agency within the Treasury Department that enforces the nation's tax laws.