May 16, 2013 12:40 am

IRS chief quits over Tea Party scandal

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President Barack Obama said the head of the Internal Revenue Service had resigned, as the White House sought to quell a series of controversies that has engulfed the administration.

“I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour in any agency, especially in the IRS,” Mr Obama said of the “improper screening” of conservative Tea Party groups. “We’re going to hold the responsible parties accountable.”

News that Steven Miller, acting IRS chief, had stepped down came hours after the administration succumbed to growing political pressure about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and released 100 pages of emails about the controversial “talking points” it used when it publicly discussed the incident.

The IRS has been under fire since it admitted on Friday that it had improperly targeted the Tea Party groups, as early as 2010, a time when the conservative movement was gaining traction throughout the country.

Neither the White House nor other parts of the administration outside the IRS have been implicated in the controversy. The issue has riled lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, partly because IRS officials who were aware of the improper vetting denied in testimony before Congress that Tea Party groups were being singled out. Such vetting was suspected by some Republicans but had not been confirmed.

Eric Holder, the attorney-general, said at a heated congressional hearing on Wednesday that “false statement violations might have been made” in connection to the scandal, raising the possibility of criminal charges.

Mr Obama said that he ordered the Treasury to immediately act on recommendations by the IRS watchdog to prevent future problems, a development that could have sweeping long-term implications for some of the biggest political players in Washington such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity. This includes the creation of new guidelines on how much political activity should be allowed by certain tax-exempt organisations, which spent more than $250m in the last election and are loosely regulated by the IRS.

“I will do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again,” Mr Obama said, adding that it was important that there was not too much “ambiguity” in the current laws.

Critics have long held that political organisations have improperly been shielded by tax rules that allow them to keep their donor lists anonymous from the public because they are characterised as “social welfare” groups.

The attempt to draw a line under the IRS controversy will probably not appease the administration’s critics on Capitol Hill, who on Wednesday took aim at Mr Holder and continued to attack the White House for its handling of the Benghazi attack.

Its decision to release the Benghazi emails came after leaks last week appeared to show officials taking out details in talking points that were seen as potentially damaging to Mr Obama’s re-election campaign. In particular, the potential al-Qaeda links of the attackers and details about previous incidents in Benghazi were taken out, which Republicans have alleged amounted to a cover-up of the real nature of the assault last September which killed four Americans.

The email exchange presents a much more complex picture of officials worried about compromising the investigation and future prosecutions.

At one stage Stephen Preston, general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency, warned that the Department of Justice had issued instructions “not to generate statements with assessments as to who did this, even internally” because of the criminal investigation.

The emails also show that Michael Morrell, deputy director of the CIA, asked for details about suspected al-Qaeda links to the attackers to be edited out. The leaks last week gave the impression that the changes were requested alone by the state department, which Republicans have accused of having political motivations.

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