WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Speaker Newt Gingrich welcomed news Friday of a White House proposal to create an independent citizens' panel to handle complaints about the Internal Revenue Service but said he questioned its sincerity.

``While I hope your administration's move toward real accountability at the IRS is genuine, I fear it is a mere fig leaf covering your opposition to reform,'' Gingrich wrote in a letter to President Clinton.

Congressional hearings last month produced a series of stories about IRS harassment and taxpayer abuse. They also put Clinton in the politically precarious position of defending the agency.

Gingrich, one of many to accuse the president of siding with the tax-collection agency over taxpayers, said he was pleased the administration was ``beginning to weaken'' in its opposition to an oversight board. However, he called the White House proposal unacceptable because he said it would simply create a series of useless panels.

``It neither makes the structural changes needed to fundamentally reform the IRS nor protects the rights of taxpayers from the outrageous abuses we have witnessed in recent weeks,'' Gingrich said.

``The only way to guarantee that such horror stories do not recur in the future is to create an experienced and independent board of directors for the IRS with the authority to change the way the agency does business.''

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Thursday that the White House is considering setting up a citizens' panel that would be far less broad than the one proposed by Congress. The White House proposes a national board, with dozens of local panels across the country, but the board would not develop any policies.

The administration official said Clinton apparently has not signed off on the idea.