By Patrick Temple-West and Karl Plume
WASHINGTON/CINCINNATI (Reuters) - A current and a former top tax official have been physically threatened in recent weeks as the scandal over Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups has gathered steam, people familiar with their situation say.
Ousted IRS acting commissioner, Steven Miller, has received such threats, according to a source familiar with his situation. The source declined to elaborate on the nature or the source of the threats.
And the head of the tax-exempt unit at the agency, Lois Lerner, who has been put on administrative leave as investigations into the controversy continue, has had telephone and email messages from unknown sources that "threaten physical violence," according to her attorney William Taylor.
Lerner first disclosed the targeting of conservative groups last month, at a tax conference.
The threats have been referred to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), which is charged with IRS personnel protection, Taylor said.
A TIGTA spokeswoman declined to comment. Miller and Lerner could not be reached for comment.
The scandal has spawned multiple congressional probes and a Justice Department investigation. It is still not clear exactly who specifically within the IRS was responsible for targeting Tea Party groups for intense scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status from 2010 through 2012, and whether there was a political motivation.
Miller and Lerner live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. On May 15, the day Miller was fired by President Barack Obama, local police stepped up patrols around Miller's home when TV news crews had gathered outside, a law enforcement spokeswoman told Reuters.
Miller, at the time, was getting security protection from federal agents, the spokeswoman said. It is unclear if he is still getting protection. Security has not been added for Lerner's neighborhood, the spokeswoman said.
Police in the area where Miller and Lerner live said they were not investigating any personal threat cases involving IRS employees.
The IRS declined to comment on security procedures.
Threats are nothing new for IRS workers. In their unpopular line of work, IRS agents face hundreds of threats annually, including death threats, TIGTA data shows.
But it is unusual for senior IRS executives to get personal threats, said Steve Walsh, a former agent with TIGTA who worked on security for some former commissioners. He is now a licensed private investigator in Los Angeles.
TIGTA provided armed escorts for IRS employees on 74 occasions in fiscal 2012 ended September 30. In the six months from October 2012 through March 2013, TIGTA provided 36 armed escorts to IRS agents.
IRS commissioners have historically had minimal security protection, said Mark Everson, a former IRS commissioner, who retired in 2007.
Everson said a distraught taxpayer once rang his doorbell at home on a Sunday evening, but the incident ended uneventfully. He said he also got phone calls at home from people hoping to vent their tax troubles to the agency's top official.
The recent scandal may force the IRS to reevaluate its security protocol for IRS commissioners, he said. "I am concerned ... there could be increased threats," he said.
In Cincinnati, where a handful of IRS agents primarily handled tax-exempt applications, IRS employees told Reuters they have been nervous and afraid.
IRS workers, who did not want their names published, said that some employees have been working from home to avoid any confrontations with the media or protesters.
On May 21, at least 200 demonstrators representing Tea Party groups rallied outside the Cincinnati IRS building's front entrance, making employees feel uncomfortable, they said.
On the Internet and talk radio, crude and insulting comments have been made about individual IRS workers, calling them "traitors," "un-American" and worse.
Keith Fogg, a former IRS lawyer who is now a professor at Villanova University, said, "The people in Cincinnati must be feeling under siege ... The job stress level must be through the roof in that place at this point."
(Reporting by Patrick Temple-West and Karl Plume; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn)