Round two in GOP face-off with ex-IRS official Lois Lerner
By: Rachael Bade
April 10, 2014 10:53 AM EDT
House Republicans are preparing for round two in their faceoff with Lois Lerner, readying a vote to hold the former IRS official in contempt of Congress.
If approved by the full House as expected, it will be the first time the House has held someone in contempt since Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012 — one of only about a dozen contempt votes that have taken place in the past 35 years.
The House Oversight Committee later on Thursday is expected to vote along party lines to hold Lerner, who became the face of the IRS scandal, in contempt for refusing to answer questions about her role last May. The full House is expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.
“We need Ms. Lerner’s testimony to complete our [investigation],” said Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “Taxpayers don’t get to plead the Fifth [Amendment] and escape all accountability when the IRS audits them. … It would irresponsible for the committee not to vigorously pursue her testimony.”
Lerner, through her lawyer, has maintained that she has broken no laws.
The controversy is heating up as congressional panels finish up their probes. The admission by Lerner, the former head of the IRS tax exempt unit, of the added scrutiny of tea party groups set off the furor last May. A critical inspector general report on the practices followed days later.
Democrats say Issa is playing fast-and-loose with an American’s constitutional rights for political purposes — comparing him to infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy, who was behind a series of 1950s contempt votes on Americans who refused questioning about what he called their “un-American” activities.
“I’m not defending the action (of) Lois Lerner but rather the protections guaranteed by the Constitution to every American,” said top panel Democrat Elijah Cummings. “I cannot cast a vote that will place me on the same page of history books with McCarthy.”
“Ms. Lerner has invoked her Fifth Amendment right, and that’s it. The end!” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
Republicans, including panel member Jim Jordan of Ohio, said, “We’ve got to pass this resolution to get to the truth” about why the IRS between 2010 and 2013 started pulling conservative groups applying for tax exemptions.
The vote comes just a day after the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee referred Lerner to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. The Justice Department is already investigating the matter and has interviewed Lerner.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Justice was leaning toward closing the investigation having found no smoking gun.
But Justice did not have access to documents declassified by Ways and Means on Wednesday because they were protected under tax privacy laws.
That panel says the now-declassified documents show she potentially broke laws that prohibited her from using her power to influence the agency’s decisions to give conservative groups — including Crossroads GPS — extra scrutiny; misled investigators about what and when she knew of the targeting; and improperly sent private taxpayer information to her personal email account, which is against IRS rules.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, which conducted the original investigation on the matter, found no evidence of political bias but simply gross mismanagement at the IRS.
Oversight Democrats have fought tooth and nail against Issa’s plan to hold Lerner in contempt, arguing that he cannot in good authority do so because he didn’t follow the correct contempt procedures.
Issa, Democrats and some lawyers say, was required to notify Lerner during questioning that if she refused to answer, she would be held in contempt of Congress. A court struck down a similar contempt situation in the 1950s.
Issa didn’t specifically tell Lerner she would be held in contempt during the last hearing, but House Republicans say she knew the consequences of her actions.
The House Oversight Committee originally brought Lerner in to testify last May under subpoena, though her lawyer told the committee she’d take the Fifth.
She shocked the committee room, however, giving a defiant speech proclaiming her innocence and claiming she had neither broken any laws or rules. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a lawyer by trade, immediately objected, arguing that a witness cannot make such a statement without being cross-examined.
The incident triggered a heated legal debate that came down along party lines, with Democrats claiming Lerner waived her right and Republicans claiming she didn’t. Lawyers also disagree on the matter.
“I counted 17 separate factual assertions … that is a lot of talking about somebody who wants to remain silent!” Gowdy said of her opening statement when the same debate erupted Thursday. “What are you fearful of, Ms. Lerner?”
The committee voted last summer that she waived her right with the opening statement.
Over the months, Lerner’s lawyer and the committee would barely keep contact.
But when Oversight decided in March to bring Lerner back under subpoena, her attorney and the committee began negotiating how and when Lerner might come back to testify and answer questions.
The negotiations fell through, however, when Lerner’s lawyer asked for a week delay on the hearing and didn’t get it right away.
Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right again at that hearing.