After weeks of intra-committee tensions and consultations with big legal guns, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel announced on Thursday that April 10 is the day his committee will consider a resolution holding former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.
The former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division considered at the center of the controversy over inappropriate handling of applications from conservative nonprofits has twice invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination before the House Oversight committee.
“Documents and testimony point to Lois Lerner as a senior IRS official responsible for conduct that deprived Americans of their rights to free speech and equal protection under our laws,” said Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “Americans expect accountability and want Congress to do all it can to gather relevant evidence about what occurred and who was responsible so that this never happens again. Ms. Lerner’s involvement in wrongdoing and refusal to meet her legal obligations has left the Committee with no alternative but to consider a contempt finding.”
The contempt process, under which Lerner, if found guilty by a jury, could be fined up to $100,000 and serve prison time of up to a year, would be triggered if the full House voted to approve the resolution.
Committee Democrats objected to Issa’s handling of negotiations with Lerner and her attorney based on committee rules. That prompted Issa to seek an opinion from the House general counsel saying that procedures had been properly followed and that lawmakers could vote on a resolution of contempt.
Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., over the past few weeks assembled legal opinions from 25 prominent experts who argued that Issa compromised any House contempt action against Lerner when he rushed to adjourn the committee’s March 5 hearing while Cummings was trying to speak.
On Thursday, Cummings said, “It is unfortunate that Chairman Issa leaked news of his contempt vote before he even told his own committee members, but frankly that is how he has conducted this entire investigation -- promoting partisanship and leaking information rather than seeking facts and reform. Our committee could have had Ms. Lerner’s testimony, but the chairman rejected her attorney’s request for a simple one-week delay while he was out of town. That was a shame because so many of our members -- Republicans and Democrats -- wanted to hear from her.”
Issa “has demonstrated over and over again that he simply does not want to hear from anyone who disagrees with him or has information that does not fit his political narrative -- including witnesses, independent legal experts and committee members like myself,” Cummings stated.
Lerner’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.