Top White House officials knew in April of tax probe

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Top White House aides knew of a scandal over tax officials targeting conservative groups in April, but did not tell President Barack Obama, in a possible bid to insulate him from political damage.

In a new twist to the drama, the White House revealed on Monday that knowledge over a report into the affair by a government watchdog was more widespread among top officials than previously thought.

Spokesman Jay Carney said that White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler learned on April 24 that an inspector general was finalising an audit into Internal Revenue Service actions towards conservative grass roots groups.

Ms Ruemmler then informed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other senior staff, Mr Carney said, though stressed that the Obama aides, as is proper with an investigation, made not attempt to intervene or influence findings.

"Our whole point, has been that knowing that this was coming does not change the fact that there was nothing we could have or should have done about it, because it was an independent Inspector General report," Mr Carney said.

Mr Carney said that Ms Ruemmler made a judgment that the matter was not one that should be raised directly with the president.

Mr Obama said last week that he first learned about the affair when the inspector general's report was leaked to the media earlier this month.

"He believes it's entirely appropriate that some matters are not appropriate to convey to him, and this is one of them," Mr Carney said.

Republicans have however questioned whether Mr Obama, or other senior officials, may have tried to suppress knowledge of the probe into IRS activities at the height of his re-election campaign last year.

When senior officials argue that Mr Obama was unaware of the goings on at the IRS, an independent agency within the Treasury, his political opponents accuse the president of negligent leadership of his own administration.

Mr Carney's comments on Monday are not likely to end the saga, one of a string of domestic dramas threatening Mr Obama's momentum at the beginning of his second term.

When asked about the issue last week, he did not disclose that senior White House staff had been told about the issue by Ms Ruemmler after she found out about it.

Also on Monday, in an evolving White House accounting of the scandal, Mr Carney said that a member of Ms Ruemmler's staff had in fact learned about the inspector general's impending report on April 16.

Under fierce pressure over the IRS drama, Mr Obama last week forced the resignation of the agency's interim chief Steven Miller.

The IRS has acknowledged that in 2010 employees subjected conservative groups, including those with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their names, to increased scrutiny when they applied for non-profit status.

But Mr Miller argued at a tense congressional hearing that the "mistakes" were symptomatic of "horrible customer service" rather than partisanship.

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