Retired IRS official Lerner held in contempt in Tea Party controversy
WASHINGTON — House Republicans voted on Wednesday to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at a pair of committee hearings about her role in the agency's Tea Party controversy.
The House passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS.
Lois Lerner directed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. A year ago this week, Lerner publicly disclosed that agents had improperly singled out Tea Party applications for extra, sometimes burdensome, scrutiny.
An inspector general's report blamed poor management but found no evidence of a political conspiracy.
Many Republicans in Congress believe otherwise.
“Who's been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS? No one that I'm aware of,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Who's gone to jail for violating the law? When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth?”
House Democrats said the voting was little more than an election-year ploy to fire up the GOP base.
“Instead of passing bipartisan legislation to create more jobs, reform immigration, raise the minimum wage or address any number of issues that affect our constituents every single day, House Republicans are spending this entire week trying to manufacture scandals for political purposes,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee.
“Welcome to witch hunt week,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
The vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress was 231 to 187, with all Republicans voting in favor and all but a few Democrats voting against.
Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions at a pair of hearings by the oversight committee. House Republicans say she waived her constitutional right by making an opening statement in which she proclaimed her innocence.
The matter goes to Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Federal law says Machen has a “duty” to bring the matter before a grand jury. But a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said it was unclear whether the duty is mandatory or discretionary. Machen was appointed to his job by President Obama.
“We will carefully review the report from the speaker of the House and take whatever action is appropriate,” Machen's office said in a statement.
The vote calling on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel was 250 to 168, with all Republicans voting in favor and most Democrats voting against. Attorney General Eric Holder has denied previous requests to appoint a special counsel, saying it was unwarranted.
Three congressional committees and the Justice Department have spent much of the past year investigating the IRS over its handling of applications for tax-exempt status.
So far, the congressional investigations have revealed that IRS officials in Washington were more involved in handling the applications than the agency initially acknowledged.
However, the probes have not publicly established anyone outside the IRS knew about the targeting or directed it.
Cummings released a report this week saying oversight committee investigators have interviewed 39 witnesses and found no involvement by the White House and no political conspiracy by IRS officials. Instead, many IRS witnesses said they lacked clear guidance from management on how to handle Tea Party applications, the report said.
“Who told Lois Lerner to target conservative Americans?” Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., said at a news conference sponsored by several Tea Party groups. “That's what we don't know. That's what we need to know.”
Lerner sat for a lengthy interview with Justice Department investigators, said her lawyer, William W. Taylor III. The interview was done “without conditions,” he said.
Lerner wouldn't answer questions before the oversight committee, Taylor said, because committee Republicans were only looking to vilify her in front of TV cameras.
Taylor said in a statement on Wednesday: “Today's vote has nothing to do with the facts or the law. Its only purpose is to keep the baseless IRS ‘conspiracy' alive through the midterm elections.”