By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Internal Revenue Service officials who took part in added scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax exemptions will testify publicly for the first time on Thursday before U.S. lawmakers, in an affair that has become increasingly partisan.
The hearing comes two months into the controversy, set off in May when an inspector general's report said the IRS inappropriately targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups for added review of their applications for tax exemptions.
Republicans say the IRS actions were influenced by political officials in Washington.
Democratic and Republican congressional investigators for the House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee have been probing the matter, conducting more than a dozen private interviews with IRS staff.
As they have gathered material on the controversy that cost the chief of the IRS his job and triggered an FBI inquiry, committee staff on both sides have leaked interview transcripts to the press to prove certain points.
Democrats say the interviews done so far show there was no political involvement in IRS activities and they released a 36-page memo on Tuesday excerpting interviews with 15 IRS employees, all of whom they say back up that view.
Republicans highlighted interview excerpts of their own on Wednesday, detailing the involvement of Washington-based IRS officials.
No one disputes that IRS handling of tax-exemption applications from non-profit groups was centered at a branch office in Cincinnati and that most of the singling out of certain groups for closer attention was done by mid-level staff.
The committee will hear testimony on Thursday from Elizabeth Hofacre, a front-line agency employee in Cincinnati, and Carter Hull, a Washington official involved in reviewing the cases.
Also testifying will be Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Russell George and other TIGTA officials. That office has played a central role in the controversy, having issued a report in May sharply critical of the IRS.
The inspector general's office has come under fire from Democrats who say his report focused too narrowly on delays in the processing of conservative groups' applications, ignoring potential delays faced by groups linked to liberal causes.
(Reporting By Kim Dixon; Editing by Peter Cooney)