WASHINGTON -- At the first congressional hearing on the IRS scandal, the soon-departing acting IRS chief Steve Miller balked each time lawmakers used the word "target" Friday to describe, well, the targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
After a four-hour House Ways and Means Committee hearing, lawmakers never were able to elicit from Miller the name or names of career IRS employees who devised the plan to scrutinize organizations with "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their names. Miller said what they were doing was a "shortcut" to grapple with a heavy workload.
"I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service we provided. The affected organizations and the American public deserve better. Partisanship or even the perception of partisanship has no place at the IRS. It cannot even appear to be a consideration in determining the tax exemption of an organization," Miller said.
Other hearings in the coming days and weeks may get to the very bottom of the scandal; nobody was buying Miller's "poor service" line. Friday was the first stab at putting the story together, in public. President Barack Obama announced this week Miller was booted out. Miller revealed at the hearing he will be allowed to retire under civil service rules.
Illinois has three members on the panel, Rep. Peter Roskam and Rep. Aaron Schock, both Republicans, and Rep. Danny Davis, a Democrat, and they all quizzed Miller.
Roskam and Schock -- and the other Republicans -- were prosecutorial. Davis and the other Democrats tried to take a larger view and steer away from GOP suggestions that this led to the Obama White House. All three were highly critical of the IRS for singling out conservative groups.
After a light round of questions, Davis concluded, "You know, after listening to all of the discussion and reading all of the information that I've read, I am not convinced that this is a great big political conspiracy. I would certainly admit that there has been some ineptitude."
Schock tried to broaden the scope of inquiry by submitting a 150-page document from the Thomas More Society with more "revelations" about anti-abotion and other groups being targeted.
Roskam focused on how the news broke about the scandal, a story in itself of bungling.
Four days before the May 14 release of the Treasury Inspector General Report -- which scorched the IRS for "inappropriate and changing criteria that may have led to inconsistent treatment of organizations" -- Miller et al. decided to reveal the Tea Party targeting in what turned out, in hindsight, to be terrible judgment.
Another IRS official, Lois Lerner, was scheduled to speak May 10 at an American Bar Association May meeting on Taxation at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here.
Miller and Lerner arranged for a question by a friendly attorney to be planted to allow Lerner to disclose the targeting in her answer.
First, Roskam brushed aside Miller's objection that targeting was a "loaded term."
"Mr. Miller, you may object to the word 'targeting,' but it's used in the IG report 16 times. So it's a common understanding of the word, and so I would just suggest that it's a well-settled doctrine and we not waste a lot of time parsing on it," Roskam said.
Roskam pressed on: "Can you walk me through the logic that animated in your mind at that time, where you thought it would be a good idea to make a public disclosure to the American Bar Association rather than coming and following up on your duty to disclose that to the House?"
Miller replied, "So we were going to do it at the same time, I believe; that our intent was to talk to you all at the same time."
But it never happened; Miller said they "called" to "get it on the calendar.
Roskam saw the lame answer for what it was. "You called to try and get on the calendar? Is that all you got?"