That disclosure has prompted a debate over whether the president should have been notified at that time.

In the week of April 22, the Office of the White House Counsel and its head, Kathryn Ruemmler, were told by Treasury Department attorneys that an inspector general’s report was nearing completion, the White House official said. In that conversation, Ms. Ruemmler learned that “a small number of line IRS employees had improperly scrutinized certain…organizations by using words like ‘tea party’ and ‘patriot,’ ” the official said.

President Barack Obama said last week he learned about the controversy at the same time as the public, on May 10, when an IRS official revealed it to a conference of lawyers. The president’s statement drew criticism, focusing attention on his management style and whether he has kept himself sufficiently informed about the agencies under his authority.

Others, including veterans of previous scandals, said the counsel—whose role is to advise the president on all legal matters concerning his job and the White House—was right to avoid telling Mr. Obama about the audit’s early findings. Doing so could have caused a new storm by creating the appearance of meddling in an independent investigation that hadn’t yet concluded, former officials said.