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Portman skeptical of Obama in IRS targeting

CINCINNATI (AP) — Ohio's Republican U.S. senator questioned Thursday the suggestion by President Barack Obama that he didn't know until recently that the IRS had been targeting conservative groups.

Sen. Rob Portman, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, told Ohio reporters in a conference call that questions about the Internal Revenue Service practices were raised early last year so it's "an issue that's been kicking around for over a year."

The Democratic president has said he heard about the IRS practice last Friday when an agency official apologized publicly for "inappropriate" actions. Following the ouster Wednesday of the acting IRS commissioner, Obama said he was angry about the targeting and won't tolerate such behavior. The Justice Department is investigating.

Portman said that when the IRS was asked previously about complaints that tea party groups were being subjected to extra scrutiny, the agency wrote last year to senators that proper procedures were being followed.

A letter from the IRS dated April 26, 2012, states that the requests for more information were part of an effort to make sure applications were complete so the correct decision could be made on whether groups qualified for tax-exempt status.

"Unfortunately, we have now learned a year later that our suspicions that we had were correct — that the IRS employees were using inappropriate political screens ... and they were zeroing in on conservative-leaning groups," Portman said.

Portman, who was involved in IRS reform legislation while in the House, said the targeting is "deeply troubling" and an example of events that are eroding public trust in government.

"It's harassment of groups because of their political beliefs," he said, adding that it goes against the principle of fair treatment.

Portman said he wants to know more about the roles of employees in the IRS office in his home area of Cincinnati, where the applications were reviewed and the employees asked tea party and other groups for more information.

While IRS officials have said the practice was initiated by low-level Cincinnati employees, Portman said, supervisors would have been involved and someone would have been directing staff. He said investigations will try to learn how high up the supervisory involvement went.

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