A Special Prosecutor for the IRS
Despite her denials, it's now plain that Lois Lerner was deeply involved in targeting conservative nonprofit groups.
March 19, 2014 7:22 p.m. ET
The House Oversight Committee's investigation of the IRS is at an inflection point. The president's congressional supporters realize that the administration's version of the agency's targeting of conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status—such as blaming local officials in the Cincinnati office or claiming that liberal groups were victimized along with conservative groups—is nonsense. Instead of debating the substance, they have resorted to procedural antics and misleading rhetoric.
I have spent a considerable amount of time and energy on the investigation—which included 38 daylong interviews of IRS and Treasury employees ranging from line employees in Cincinnati to the IRS commissioner to the chief of staff of the U.S. Treasury. The real news has been revealed at the Lois Lerner hearing on March 5 and in the report of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on March 11: "Lois Lerner's Involvement in the IRS Targeting of Tax-Exempt Organizations."
The evidence brought to light in that hearing and report completely discredited Ms. Lerner's claims about her involvement in what went on. It also eviscerated the notion that liberal and conservative groups were targeted.
When Ms. Lerner appeared before Congress in May 2013, she made this statement: "I have done nothing wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations." But Ms. Lerner, we discovered, forwarded confidential taxpayer information to her personal email account in early May 2013, which is a violation of IRS rules. About the infamous "Be on the Lookout" targeting list—a document used to identify conservative groups for additional scrutiny—she told Congress that the criteria for screening tax-exempt groups for extra scrutiny never changed. In fact, she personally ordered it changed in July 2011 according to documents and testimony received by the committee.
Ms. Lerner was most certainly driven by politics. One email of June 11, 2011, shows that she directed her subordinate to focus on the issues surrounding the application of Karl Rove's group, Crossroads GPS. In another email of Feb. 1, 2011, she frets about the Supreme Court "overturning the ban on corporate spending" as it applies to nonprofits. (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission also overturned the ban on union political spending, but she expressed no concern about that.)
Emails and testimony that we confronted Ms. Lerner with showed her saying that the tea party is "very dangerous," ordering a "multitiered review" (read: delay) of the cases, and managing the optics of her operation so it would not be revealed as a political project.
Last May, and again on March 5 of this year, Ms. Lerner refused to answer the committee's questions about the IRS treatment of tax-exempt groups, asserting her right under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Yet we learned on March 6 in reporting by this newspaper that she had previously given an interview to the Justice Department and, according to her lawyer, spoke with no grant of immunity.
Ms. Lerner's lawyer claims she gave an interview to the Justice Department because she did not believe the Oversight Committee would treat her fairly. More likely, the reason is because Justice is friendly territory. The lead investigator is a substantial Obama campaign contributor, and Justice has already leaked that it doesn't expect to prosecute anyone. As to the claim that liberal groups were also victimized, our committee investigation has yet to hear from a single progressive group that received the systematic scrutiny and harassment faced by the tea party and other conservative groups.
Congress is charged with oversight of the executive branch. The House Oversight Committee will not stop until we have all the answers, although I fully expect continued obstruction from the Obama administration and its foot soldiers in the House.
When Congress is thwarted in our attempts to get answers—as is clearly the case given Ms. Lerner's willingness to speak with the Justice Department but not to the public's elected representatives—we have an obligation to hold accountable those hiding the facts. Contempt of Congress is a power the House of Representatives exercised toward only five individuals in the last 30 years. The relevant statute states that any person who "willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry" may be held in contempt. Ms. Lerner's actions easily rise to a level worthy of contempt and Congress's institutional integrity demands nothing less.
Additionally, it is necessary to appoint a special prosecutor. Mr. Holder called the IRS matter "outrageous and unacceptable" and ordered a Justice Department investigation to be conducted in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No one can have confidence in this investigation, started by a politically appointed attorney general and led by a campaign contributor to his boss.
A special prosecutor, uncompromised by partisan political winds, provides hope of uncovering what happened at the IRS. As Elijah Cummings, my Democratic colleague on the Oversight Committee, said on May 22, 2013—the day of the committee's first IRS hearing—getting the truth and restoring trust must be paramount. "This is more important than one election," he explained. "The revelations that have come forward so far provides us with a moment pregnant for transformation; not transformation for a moment, but for generations to come and generations yet unborn."
I hope Mr. Cummings and fellow members of his party will join me in acknowledging the time has come for the appointment of an independent and unbiased special prosecutor.