WASHINGTON – Former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner refused for a second time to testify about the agency’s handling of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status during a hearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee that quickly turned hostile.
Lerner, who served as director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the IRS when questions were raised about the agency’s procedures, repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment rights under questioning from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), despite threats to hold her in contempt.
After about 11 minutes Issa concluded the questioning, saying that he saw “no reason to go forward” in the face of Lerner’s refusal. Issa adjourned the committee despite attempts by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, to be recognized for what he said was “a procedural question” that could end the stand-off.
Issa instead ordered that the microphones be turned off and he attempted to leave.
“You can’t run a committee like this,” Cummings shouted. “We’re better than this. We’re better than that as a country. We’re better than that as a committee. What’s the big deal?”
Issa ordered that the microphones be turned back on – but only temporarily.
“We’re adjourned,” Issa said. “Close it down.”
“I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America,” Cummings said. “I am tired of this. You cannot conduct a one-sided investigation.”
Questioned after the hearing about his actions, Issa said, “Mr. Cummings said he had questions to ask. Instead he began making an opening statement even after the committee had been adjourned.”
The acrimony – which has been growing steadily between Issa and Cummings – deflected attention from Lerner, who Issa earlier said was expected to provide the committee with information it is seeking about the IRS and any possible White House involvement in the process.
At issue are claims that the IRS either slow-walked or denied requests from Tea Party and various other conservative groups seeking designations under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service Code that permits them to engage in some political activity and protect the identity of donors.
On May 10, 2013, Lerner, while participating in a public forum, revealed that the agency was targeting conservative groups, slow-walking or denying their applications. Three days later the inspector general for the Department of the Treasury released a report concluding that the IRS was using “inappropriate criteria” in reviewing tax-exempt status applications.
These improper reviews, the inspector general said, resulted in “substantial delays in processing” the applications. It also was determined the groups were subject to “unnecessary information requests.”