April 09, 2014, 12:06 pm
Panel sends Lerner case to DOJ
By Bernie Becker
The House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday urged the Justice Department to take a fresh look at whether former IRS official Lois Lerner should be prosecuted, saying she broke the law multiple times.
After a rare session conducted mainly behind closed doors, the committee voted to send a criminal referral to Attorney General Eric Holder on a party-line 23-14 vote.
The letter to Holder outlining the potential charges says that Lerner recklessly exposed confidential taxpayer information, misled the inspector general investigating the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups and pushed the agency to only take a deeper look at conservative organizations.
All told, those actions are punishable by up to 11 years in prison, a House aide said this week.
The Ways and Means action also kicks off a two-day span full of legal headaches for Lerner, the IRS official who first apologized for the agency’s actions last year.
The House Oversight panel, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and where Lerner has twice invoked the Fifth Amendment, is expected to move on contempt of Congress charges on Thursday.
Lerner’s attorney, Bill Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder, called the timing of Wednesday’s vote “odd” in a statement to reporters, and said he had not heard from the Ways and Means Committee about its referral.
“The Committee’s referral affects nothing. The Department of Justice is already investigating the IRS. This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain,” Taylor said in his statement.
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption. Those are the facts,” Taylor added.
Democrats chided Republicans for considering the referral letter against Lerner behind closed doors, underscoring how heated the investigation into the IRS has become.
Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) even told the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), to “chill out” in the five minutes of open session before the public was kicked out.
For his part, Levin accused Camp in an opening statement of tarnishing the reputation of the Ways and Means panel, suggesting that Camp was using similar tactics to Issa to rile up the Republican base this election year.
“Making this committee an arm of any campaign committee does a deep disservice to the proud traditions and legacy of this committee,” Levin said. “I don’t understand why you are doing this, Mr. Chairman.”
Levin also took issue with Camp releasing the taxpayer information, noting that the only similar release in the committee’s history was then-President Nixon’s tax returns in 1974. Nixon himself had requested those returns be made public.
The Justice Department announced last May that it was investigating the IRS, just days after Lerner acknowledged that the agency had given improper scrutiny to groups seeking tax-exempt status. The department has already interviewed Lerner “without conditions,” Taylor said.
Holder declined to give lawmakers an update on that investigation during a Tuesday hearing, but reports in recent months have suggested that it’s unlikely that inquiry would lead to charges.
But House aides say that Wednesday’s referral to Holder would likely have new information for the department, because Camp is one of a limited number of officials with access to confidential taxpayer information.
In the 11 months since Lerner’s apology, roughly a half dozen congressional committees have also investigated the IRS’s actions, and several top agency officials – including the acting commissioner and Lerner herself – either lost their jobs or left the IRS.
The House Oversight panel, which will consider contempt charges on Thursday, has ruled that Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence in an opening statement in a May, 2013 hearing.
Issa and other GOP lawmakers have said that Lerner’s testimony is crucial to their investigation. But Taylor has said that he believes Republicans are only seeking to vilify his client.