Ex-IRS Official Silent as Congressional Hearing Turns Into Shouting Match

Former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner Former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

The Internal Revenue Service alumna considered the central player in the nine-month-old agency controversy involving tax-exempt organizations again invoked her Fifth Amendment rights before a House panel on Wednesday, prompting a partisan shouting match and ending the hearing after 15 minutes.

Lois Lerner, the former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division at which applications for tax-exempt status by mostly conservative nonprofits were subjected to extra scrutiny, cited her right not to answer on advice of counsel in response to seven questions from House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Issa had said on Fox News last weekend that Lerner had agreed to testify, but her attorney, William Taylor, denied there was an agreement.

The hearing, with a dozen lawmakers attending and heavy media presence, was a continuation of a May 2013 hearing at which Lerner also plead the Fifth, a tactic that allowed Issa to recall her on Wednesday. The day before the hearing, committee staff sent out a fact sheet reiterating the Republican’s case for the gravity of the IRS targeting scandal; the committee website included an icon reserved for Lerner’s anticipated testimony as well as a link to the May 2013 hearing.

“I see no point in going forward since I have no expectation that Ms. Lerner will cooperate,” Issa said after his opening statement and queries. “You are all free to leave.”

But at that moment, Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., insisted on speaking. “You can’t run a committee like that,” he said. “You cannot have a one-sided investigation. And it’s absolutely un-American,” he added, as Issa, having allowed him to begin his opening statement, gestured with a hand slashing across his neck for technicians to cut his microphone.

Issa later told reporters that Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, founding partner of law firm Zuckerman Spaeder, “had said that Lerner would testify under certain conditions.” Though his panel’s efforts to hear her testimony “may have reached a dead end,” Issa said his team is mulling its options, including seeking a judge’s order. He accused Cummings of “wanting a more convenient truth,” explaining that he cut Cummings off because he was not addressing questions to the witness, the hearing had adjourned, and Cummings had not invoked a point of order or personal privilege.

Cummings, at the same post-hearing press briefing, said that “from beginning, this has been an effort to claim that the White House targeted political enemies,” a charge for which, after testimony from 38 IRS employees, there is no evidence, he added. “I felt it appropriate that Democrats have their say since we’ve been shut out.”

Cummings said that he too is interested in what Lerner has to say, adding that he is troubled by IRS “gross mismanagement” and failure to communicate problems to Congress. He promising continued efforts to work out a “proffer” of the testimony that Lerner might give if offered immunity from prosecution. Such a plan, Cummings said, was addressed by not yet pursued by Issa’s staff, acting without Democratic input.

According to Issa’s fact sheet, Lerner’s attorney “changed his story” on the conditions under which she would testify. It also charges the IRS with failing to turn over certain Lerner emails viewed as key to the targeting case. 

See the video of the hearing below: 

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