More than four years after accusations of political targeting rocked the Internal Revenue Service, the Trump administration’s Justice Department has rejected a request from Republicans on the House tax-writing committee that it prosecute the controversy’s main character: Lois Lerner.
In letter released Friday by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Tax Policy Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam, R-Ill., the department said there is no basis for overturning a rejection of prosecutable charges made in 2015 under Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder.
Lerner headed up the Exempt Organization Division during the 2010-13 period when, according to an inspector general’s probe, primarily conservative nonprofits seeking tax-exempt status as social welfare groups found their applications delayed or burdened with extra paperwork demands. Lerner took the Fifth Amendment when she appeared before Congress during multiple committee hearings and investigations. She left government with a full pension in September 2013.
Republicans, after taking control of Congress in 2011 began cutting the IRS’s budget, with some citing Lerner’s case as the reason, and some continue to seek to impeach or fire Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen for what they see as his role in covering up materials related to the scandal after he joined the agency as a cleanup man.
House Republicans first referred Lerner for prosecution in April 2014. But career Justice Department attorneys during the Obama administration, in decisions in April and October 2015, said they found no basis for criminal charges against Lerner for contempt of Congress or for criminally violating the rights of taxpayer applicants.
Friday’s new letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told the lawmakers that while the “IRS’s mishandling of tax-exempt applications disproportionately impacted applicants affiliated with Tea Party groups and similar organizations . . . its investigation had not uncovered evidence of criminal intent by any IRS official.”
Earlier this year, Boyd continued, Justice again reviewed the case, with participation by attorneys who only recently joined the department, and “determined that reopening the criminal investigation would not be appropriate based on the available evidence.”
Brady released a statement Friday saying, “This is a terrible decision. It sends the message that the same legal, ethical, and constitutional standards we all live by do not apply to Washington political appointees, who will now have the green light to target Americans for their political beliefs and mislead investigators without ever being held accountable for their lawlessness. Not only has the Department of Justice chosen not to hold Lois Lerner criminally liable for obstructing an official investigation by the inspector general, the department continues to defend the Internal Revenue Service’s unconstitutional actions against taxpayers in ongoing civil litigation.”
Roskam added that the decision is “a miscarriage of justice . . . The department’s response blatantly ignores our most troubling finding: that Ms. Lerner intentionally misled federal investigators in a flagrant violation of the law.”
William Taylor, the attorney who represented Lerner, told Government Executive that the latest Justice decision “makes perfect sense because there was never any basis for criminal charges.”