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In first visit to Congress, U.S. IRS chief pleads for fresh start

John Koskinen testifies before a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commissioner of the Internal Revenue
John Koskinen testifies before a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be commissioner of the Internal Revenue

By Patrick Temple-West

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new chief of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service on Wednesday said the tax agency needs to start moving beyond a controversy that erupted almost nine months ago about its scrutiny of a handful of conservative political groups.

In his first congressional appearance since taking the helm at the IRS in December, Commissioner John Koskinen said he will cooperate with the six separate investigations into the IRS's missteps last year, but that he is eager to move forward.

"It doesn't serve my ability to manage the agency to go back in time and try to look at any particular aspects of the agency," he told members of the tax-writing House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee in a hearing.

The worst IRS scandal in years burst into view in May 2013 when a senior IRS executive issued a public apology for what she called inappropriate scrutiny applied by IRS staff to some organizations applying for tax-exempt status.

The organizations were mostly conservative, Tea Party-aligned non-profit groups. The apology triggered furious accusations by congressional Republicans that the IRS was deliberately targeting conservatives for unfair treatment.

The acting chief of the IRS, Steven Miller, resigned. Public hearings were held on Capitol Hill, where current and former IRS officials were grilled by Republicans over the affair. It is still under investigation, though few new facts have emerged in months.

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of using the IRS to harass conservatives, but no evidence has surfaced tying the White House to agency scrutiny of such groups.

In contrast to last year's hearings, Koskinen's session in the Republican-controlled House was relatively polite. Brought in by President Barack Obama to stabilize the IRS, Koskinen was confirmed with bipartisan support in the Senate.

At the hearing, Democrats defended Koskinen and criticized Republicans for continuing to probe the IRS's past troubles. Representative Linda Sanchez, a Democrat, accused the Republicans of "a political witch hunt."

Ways and Means Republicans criticized the IRS for providing documents to congressional investigators too slowly.

Koskinen told reporters afterward that the IRS has 150 people working to provide agency documents to investigators.

"In a time of declining resources, it's been a major drain," he said of the agency's response to inquiries by Congress, the Justice Department and the IRS's inspector general. "I hope we can get closure as soon as possible to get it behind us."

Koskinen, 74, is a lawyer with little tax experience. With a reputation as troubleshooter, he has promised that one of his priorities is to restore public trust in the IRS.

(Reporting by Patrick Temple-West; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Alden Bentley)

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