WASHINGTON – The House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, in a straight party-line vote, recommended Thursday that former IRS official Lois Lerner be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about her agency’s actions regarding its handling of conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.
The final vote showed all 21 Republican committee members voting for a finding of contempt with the panel’s 12 Democrats in opposition. The issue now heads to the House floor where the GOP holds a solid majority. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) already has said the committee action will be affirmed.
“If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” Boehner said. “And we will continue to shine the light on the administration’s abusive actions and use every tool at our disposal to expose the truth and ensure the American people get the answers they deserve.”
After the House considers and votes on the issue, the contempt finding will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. The law maintains it is the duty of the prosecutor to thereafter refer the matter to a grand jury.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee chairman who has been pushing to compel Lerner’s testimony, said the contempt action was necessary “to complete our oversight work and bring truth to the American people.”
“I am concerned that Ms. Lerner violated the law,” Issa said. “If she or her lawyer explained what she wanted to admit and why she needed immunity to tell the full truth I certainly would consider it. But I’m not going to consider immunity so Ms. Lerner can continue to mislead this committee. If she really did nothing wrong and wants to tell the full truth she doesn’t need immunity.”
Democrats reacted fiercely. In a report released ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, accused Issa of attempting to “re-create the Oversight Committee in Joe McCarthy’s image, and we reject his attempts to drag us back to that shameful era in which Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the most dishonorable kind of partisan politics.”
“Chairman Issa has identified no historical precedent for successfully convicting an American citizen for contempt after that person has asserted his or her Fifth Amendment right not to testify before Congress,” Cummings said. “The only other times in recent memory that Congress attempted to do this were a disgraceful stain on our nation’s history.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) predicted the contempt citation “will be laughed out of court.”
“The chairman has bungled it so much that it will only go to cost the taxpayers more money,” Lynch said.
The Oversight Committee has spent almost a year investigating 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 limited political activity and protect the identity of donors.
On May 10, 2013, Lerner, then the agency’s director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, revealed that the IRS 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.”
The next day, Attorney General Eric Holder pronounced the agency’s actions “outrageous and unacceptable” and opened an investigation to determine if any laws were broken. But congressional Republicans have voiced dissatisfaction with the Justice Department’s handling of the issue and spearheaded committee probes into the agency’s functions.
Lerner initially was called to appear before the committee on May 22, 2013. At that time she insisted she had not done anything wrong nor had she broken any laws in conducting her duties overseeing tax-exempt groups at the IRS. But she refused further testimony and would not answer committee questions on advice of counsel.
Subsequently, the committee determined that Lerner waived her rights under the Fifth Amendment when she professed her innocence. She was again called before the committee and Issa said she would testify. But she once again refused on advice of counsel.
Issa on Thursday said Lerner’s decision not to testify at that March 5 hearing after reviewing emails and other documents obtained by the committee. On April 8 the panel released a report recommending that the House find Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with a duly issued subpoena.
The IRS probe created a flurry of congressional activity this week. On Wednesday the House Ways and Means Committee, which maintains some oversight of the IRS, referred the case to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) in a letter to Holder asserted that Lerner may have violated several statutes. The missive said Lerner used her position to improperly influence agency action against only conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law. It further maintained she impeded official investigations by providing misleading statements in response to questions from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and may have disclosed, confidential taxpayer information.
“This investigation has uncovered serious, unprecedented actions taken by Lois Lerner that deprived conservative groups of their rights under the Constitution,” Camp said.
The Justice Department responded by restating that it is already looking into the IRS matter.
The probe took another odd turn on Wednesday when Issa accused Cummings of impeding the Oversight Committee investigation.
Issa revealed that IRS records established communications between the agency and Cummings’ congressional office True the Vote, a Texas-based, nonprofit conservative group seeking to prevent voter fraud.
Lerner was involved in some of interaction between the IRS and Cummings’ office, Issa said.
“The IRS and the Oversight Minority made numerous requests for virtually identical information from True the Vote, raising concerns that the IRS improperly shared protected taxpayer information with Rep. Cummings’ staff,” a statement from the Oversight panel said.
Cummings responded by saying he sought only publicly available information about True the Vote from the IRS. He also noted that his concerns about the Texas organization can be found on his website, establishing that he was not attempting to hide anything.
Cummings maintained he had legitimate concerns about the IRS granting tax-exempt status to True the Vote since the group had given $5,000 to a state Republican organization – something tax-exempt groups are prohibited from doing.
“I have made no secret of my concern about True the Vote’s political activities,” Cummings said.
Issa and Cummings have been warring over the IRS probe for months.