WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday warned top officials at the Internal Revenue Service that criminal laws on false statements could come into play in a Justice Department investigation on the agency's targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Appearing at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder said the investigation would examine whether groups of individuals had their civil rights criminally violated and whether statutes governing I.R.S. conduct were violated.
After repeated accusations from senior lawmakers that top I.R.S. officials had lied to them, Mr. Holder also issued a warning: "False-statement violations might have been made, given at least what I know at this point."
Three Congressional committees already have hearings planned to investigate the agency's activities, and an early focus appears to be on whether I.R.S. officials lied to members of Congress.
Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has a hearing scheduled for next Wednesday, and Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, sent a nine-page letter accusing Lois Lerner, the head of the I.R.S.'s division on tax-exempt organizations, of providing false or misleading information to the committee four times in 2012 as the scope of the targeting effort became clear ahead of the presidential election.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which also has opened an investigation, said he was "purposely misled" by the acting I.R.S. commissioner, Steven Miller, when he and other Republican senators were told that no targeting of conservative groups had taken place.
Ahead of a public hearing on Friday with Mr. Miller, the bipartisan leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee requested all I.R.S. documents on the targeting of conservative organizations. Mr. Miller met privately with Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as four Republican senators, including the top two leaders, demanded his resignation.
Mr. Holder made it clear that the criminal investigation he said he ordered on Friday was only the beginning. But he said it would be based in Washington to give it the broadest possible scope and would not be concentrating solely on the service's field office in Cincinnati, where the political targeting was largely based.
"The facts will take us wherever they take us," he said, adding: "This will not be about parties. This will not be about ideological persuasions. Anyone who has broken the law will be held accountable."
The other area of particluar interest to House and Senate investigators is whether top officials in the I.R.S. shared information about the targeting efforts with the Obama administration.
Pushing back against an inspector general's report, the I.R.S. said Wednesday morning that its chief counsel did not tell Treasury superiors of I.R.S. targeting efforts, nor did he participate in a 2011 meeting when the issue was discussed with the I.R.S. chief counsel's office.
The I.R.S. statement came as House and Senate aides investigating the agency's actions said they were focusing on an Aug. 4, 2011, meeting in which, according to a report by the Treasury inspector general, the I.R.S.'s chief counsel conferred with agency officials to discuss the activities of a team in the Cincinnati field office. The team had been subjecting applications for tax-exempt status from Tea Party and other conservative groups to a greater degree of review than those from other organizations.
Under I.R.S. rules, the agency's chief counsel, William J. Wilkins, reports to the Treasury Department's general counsel, and investigators want to determine if Mr. Wilkins took the issue out of the independent I.R.S. to other parts of the Obama administration.
But the I.R.S. statement Wednesday said the notation on which the report relied was referring to the chief counsel's office, which employs 1,600 lawyers, not Mr. Wilkins himself.
"Wilkins is not involved in the 501(c)(4) application process," the agency said. "He did not discuss 501(c)(4) applications with the Treasury general counsel. Mr. Wilkins did not learn about specific groups being singled out by name until earlier this year."
The question of whether Mr. Wilkins conferred with Treasury staff members holds significant political implications for the White House, which has stressed the I.R.S.'s independence even as President Obama has castigated the agency over the allegations of political bias.
"What we don't know at this point is whether it jumped the fence from the I.R.S. to the White House," said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. "But we do know this: we can't count on the administration to be forthcoming about the details of this scandal, because so far they've been anything but."
The inspector general's report, issued Tuesday, blamed ineffective Internal Revenue Service management in the failure to stop employees from singling out conservative groups for added scrutiny. Late Tuesday, Mr. Obama said in a statement that "the report's findings are intolerable and inexcusable."
The report said that senior I.R.S. officials told inspectors that no individual or organization outside the agency influenced the criteria used to single out Tea Party or other conservative groups.
But Congressional aides looking into the matter are not convinced. One notation in a 12-page timeline of events prepared by the inspector general stood out for exploration. On Aug. 4, 2011, officials at the I.R.S.'s rulings and agreement office met with the I.R.S.'s chief counsel "so that everyone would have the latest information on the issue," according to the inspector general.
That was interpreted as an invitation to bring the matter up the chain of command, to the Treasury general counsel, George W. Madison, who left the department in June 2012. Treasury officials declined to comment Tuesday.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.