'Conservative Republican' at IRS defends treatment of Tea Party

WASHINGTON, June 18 Tue Jun 18, 2013 4:47pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - A manager from a U.S. Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati where staff have been accused of unfairly subjecting conservative groups to extra scrutiny has said his agents were not influenced by any political agenda.

John Shafer, who described himself as "a conservative Republican," told congressional investigators he sought advice from his boss on how to handle the first Tea Party application he and a lower-level agent came across in February 2010 because it was a new, high-profile issue.

Asked if the lower-level agent sought to elevate the case to Washington because he disagreed with Tea Party politics, Shafer said this was not the case.

"We never, never discussed any political, personal aspirations whatsoever," he said, according to a transcript of his testimony reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday.

The IRS controversy erupted on May 10 when a Washington IRS official apologized for the handling of applications for tax exemption submitted to the IRS by conservative groups between early 2010 and early 2012.

The furor since then has led to the ousting of the IRS chief by President Barack Obama, an FBI investigation and a congressional investigation.

Leaks from the congressional investigation, now in its sixth week, have neither clearly supported allegations by Republicans of undue influence by Washington officials or the White House, nor ruled this out.

Some material has undermined the allegations by suggesting that the screeners - some of whom were managed by Shafer at the Cincinnati processing hub - acted largely on their own.

Shafer said his screeners knew when a new issue could be difficult and might need to be evaluated by superiors.

"They were folks that had a lot of experience," he said. "So as they would be reviewing these initial applications, they would be well aware of things that they many not have seen before."

Shafer said he was in charge of the tax agency's first look at all tax-exemption applications sent to Cincinnati. Forms that needed a closer look were sent to another unit, he said.

"On an annual basis there would be upwards to 70,000 applications" submitted to the Cincinnati office, he said. "On a monthly basis there would be 4,000 to 5,000 applications that would go through my group." (Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and David Brunnstrom)

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