White House says it knew of IRS probe findings earlier

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WASHINGTON -- The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly targeted conservative groups, saying some senior officials were informed of the findings, but that President Barack Obama was not.

The assertions came as the White House struggled to contain a political uproar over the IRS, which targeted conservative organizations for extra scrutiny, as well as over the administration's aggressive pursuit of journalists in leak investigations and its handling of September's deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top officials about the IRS findings nearly a month ago, press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. He said Ms. Ruemmler decided the information should not be transmitted to the president because the IRS inspector general's report was not finished.

"The judgment of the White House counsel was that this is not a matter that she should convey to the president," Mr. Carney told reporters during a tense news briefing. "This is not the kind of thing, when you have an ongoing investigation or an ongoing audit, that requires notification to the president, because what is important is that we wait until that kind of process is completed before we take action."

The new account goes well beyond what officials had said as recently as Sunday, when senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in television interviews that the White House did not know the inquiry results until the inspector general's report was released last week. Mr. Carney had said previously that Ms. Ruemmler was told "only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review" of the IRS's conduct, and he portrayed it as a "normal sort of heads-up" notification.

But Mr. Carney on Monday said a White House counsel's staff member learned of the IG report the week of April 16, a week earlier than previously disclosed. He also said Ms. Ruemmler had briefed Mr. McDonough and other senior aides on the findings.

The revelations were the latest in a series of disclosures about what officials knew about the IRS scandal before it became public May 10, when the agency apologized for singling out right-leaning groups. The string of disclosures added to a growing sense of a White House under siege, struggling to contain multiple controversies at once.

Administration officials were on the defensive Monday about a Washington Post report that the FBI had tracked the phone calls, emails and movements of Fox News Channel diplomatic correspondent James Rosen as part of a leak probe.

In the IRS case, White House officials said Mr. Obama would not have acted any differently had he known ahead of time about the inspector general's findings. Mr. Obama has said he learned of them in the media May 10.

"It's somewhat ironic that there has been some suggestion that action should have been taken because we were aware that an independent IG was reaching the conclusion of a report," Mr. Carney said. "These kinds of independent investigations need to be independent. There should be no intervention by a White House, and, of course, there was not in this case."

The IRS began to target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status in early 2010, first scrutinizing organizations with "Tea Party" and other conservative-sounding names. After a long bureaucratic struggle, agency officials finally put the targeting to rest in 2012. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration soon began an audit of the practices, releasing its results last week.

The revelations have prompted a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, multiple congressional investigations and a succession of hearings, including one scheduled for today by the Senate Finance Committee. IRS officials have said they were wrong to use the criteria they did to screen conservatives, but that they were not motivated by partisan interests.

No evidence has emerged that any White House official knew of the conduct until last month, but Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin and other political appointees learned about the IG probe last year.



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