WASHINGTON – The ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service apologized Friday morning for the agency's "foolish mistakes" in its handling of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status and attributed the IRS' actions to a misguided pursuit of efficiency instead of partisan targeting.
Steven Miller, the IRS acting commissioner, appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee, the first congressional showdown on the issue since revelations the agency inappropriately singled out tea party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny.
Also testifying was J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, whose findings were released this week, days after an IRS official first acknowledged that conservative groups applying for nonprofit status had faced additional and intrusive reviews.
PHOTOS: President Obama’s rough week
"Our report, issued earlier this week, addresses three allegations: First, that the IRS targeted specific groups applying for tax-exempt status; second, that they delayed the processing of these groups’ applications; and third, that the IRS requested unnecessary information from the groups it subjected to special scrutiny," George said in his opening statement. "All three allegations were substantiated.
"These findings have raised troubling questions about whether the IRS has effective management oversight and control, at least in the Exempt Organizations function," George added.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said the "revelation goes against the very principles of free speech and liberty upon which this country was founded."
Camp blasted the Obama administration and said the IRS controversy was a reason to overhaul the tax code. “Under this administration, the IRS has abused its power to tax and it has destroyed what little faith and hope the American people had in getting a fair shake in Washington," he said. "This will not stand. Trimming a few branches will not solve the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten. And that is exactly what has happened with our entire tax system – it’s rotten at the core and it must be ripped out so we can start fresh.”
DOCUMENT: The Inspector General’s report on the IRS
He also drew parallels to another controversy dogging the White House: the administration's response and explanation about the attack on an American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya last fall.
“Listening to the nightly news, this appears to be just the latest example of a culture of coverups – and political intimidation – in this administration. It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election,” Camp said.
Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin, the top Democrat on the panel, joined Camp in excoriating the IRS.
“What is now completely clear is that the management and oversight of the agency’s handling of tax exemption application have completely failed the American people,” Levin said.
But he took issue with Camp's broader statement.
"If this hearing essentially becomes an effort to political points, it will be a disregard of the duties of this committee," Levin said. "We must seek the truth, not political gain."
Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook