In a historic move intensifying the dispute over political bias at the Internal Revenue Service, the House Oversight and Government Reform panel on Thursday voted along partisan lines to hold former IRS executive Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.
The 21-12 tally sends to the House floor a resolution saying that “Lois G. Lerner, former Director, Exempt Organizations, Internal Revenue Service, offered a voluntary statement in testimony before the committee, was found by the committee to have waived her Fifth Amendment privilege, was informed of the committee’s decision of waiver, and continued to refuse to testify before the Committee. Ms. Lerner shall be found to be in contempt of Congress for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena.”
House Republicans said they’d been frustrated by Lerner’s refusal on two occasions to answer their questions on the mishandling of largely conservative nonprofits applying for tax-exempt status. They were also critical of John Koskinen, installed in January as Internal Revenue Commissioner, for not promptly turning over all requested internal emails by Lerner.
The vote also came a day after the House Ways and Means Committee voted to send a rare “referral” of Lerner’s case to the Justice Department for prosecution while also making public new documents on Lerner’s role in the processing of tax-exempt applications, documents that Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., entered into the record of his Thursday business meeting.
If the House approves the Issa resolution, it will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and sent before a grand jury.
“I don’t take this lightly, but we need to complete our oversight work and bring the truth to the American people,” said Issa, noting that Lerner had given a “legally no strings-attached” interview to the Justice Department without a grant of immunity. “She seems willing to talk to the executive branch but remains unwilling to talk to the elected branch,” he said. “Yet the American taxpayers don’t get to plead the Fifth when the IRS audits them. She waived her rights, and that should have entitled us to at least ask questions after she invoked the Fifth. ”
Issa also faulted Koskinen for denying that the tax exempt organization targeted any conservative nonprofit groups, saying, “It’s not a good start for a leader put in to restore trust.”
Democrats led by Ranking Member Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., gave dramatic warnings of a “sad day” for the committee’s credibility with the public, calling the Republican tactics a “witch hunt,” “political theater” and a “star chamber.” If the resolution goes to the courts, then it will delay for years the testimony from Lerner that both sides agree they want to hear, the Democrats said.
“I speak to those who are reading the transcript of today’s proceedings 50 or 100 years from now and are trying to understand why Congress -- in the year 2014 -- tried to strip away an American citizen’s rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution,” Cummings said. “I cannot cast a vote that would place me on the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
Specifically, Cummings said, he would like Lerner to explain why she failed to learn of inappropriate handling of applications for a year and then failed to disclose them to Congress. But “if today’s vote were really about weighing these significant constitutional questions, we would have held at least one hearing with experts on all sides of this debate,” he added, citing 31 independent experts who have reported to him that Issa did not follow due process in negotiating for Lerner to appear.
Issa replied that he believed the word of the House counsel on contempt procedures, and that Lerner’s fate should “ultimately be decided by a lifetime appointed federal judge neither you nor I get to pick.”
After a morning of spirited debate, Cummings produced a stack of unreleased transcripts of interviews committee staff had conducted with IRS employees about the alleged targeting. “We believe a federal court will dismiss this resolution” once the full transcripts are made public, he said, accusing Issa of “cherry-picking” and publishing passages or showing select reporters isolated interviews that “fit with his narrative” of a political conspiracy to use the IRS that reaches up the White House.
Republicans showed no signs of letting up on the controversy that hits its first anniversary next month. “If Lerner won’t talk and the IRS won’t give us emails, how will we get to the truth,” said Rep. Joe Jordan, R-Ohio.
The IRS’ actions amount to “one of the more fundamental abuses I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “They were trying to skew an election, gagging and hogtying conservative groups in an election.” Noting that new Lerner emails were made public only the day before, Mica described one of them from 2012 as expressing Lerner’s hope that Democrats retain the Senate.
“Lerner made 17 factual assertions” in her brief opening statement to the committee last May before invoking her right not to incriminate herself, said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “That’s a lot of talking for someone who wants to remain silent. But that’s not the way system works. You have to answer the other side’s questions. “
Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., cited some liberal legal scholars who said Lerner waived her rights when she claimed she’d done nothing wrong. “Every defendant in the country could come in and testify and then plead the Fifth,” he said. “That would make a mockery of our system.”
Lerner’s attorney said she was avoiding public testimony because she “doesn’t want to be vilified, but not being vilified is not a constitutionally protected” right, said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said “if this committee were truly interested in the truth, there would be an offer of immunity. Republicans believe there is a criminal case so they seek to compel her to be a witness against herself.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton D-D.C., faulted Issa for declining Lerner’s attorney’s request for a week’s delay when Lerner was made to appear on March 5, saying the negotiations were bearing fruit until “the chairman went on national TV and blew them up.” The oversight committee, she added, “is pursuing the destruction of one single woman clinging to her God-given constitutional rights.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, “Let’s stipulate that Lerner is not a heroic figure, but even with a nonheroic figure, even an IRS employee” is entitled to protections against “self entrapment.”
Lerner is “a mid-level bureaucrat who may or not have committed abuses, whose bank account has been drained to pay lawyers,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “If this vast conspiracy were real, she would have been granted immunity.”
Just before the final vote, Issa said, “If Miss Lerner wants to proffer, my inbox is open to her proffer.” And, he added, if the Justice Department turns over her interview transcript, “that might negate the need for her to come before us.”