The IRS official at the center of a scandal over the targeting of Tea Party
groups refused to answer questions by a House committee Wednesday, saying she
did nothing wrong but was nevertheless invoking her right not to testify against
Now, Congress could use that same denial of wrongdoing to justify forcing her to come back and answer more questions about her office's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny for more than two years.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information," said Lois Lerner, IRS director of exempt organizations.
"Because I am asserting my right not to testify, some people will assume I have done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic functions of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals. That is the protections I am invoking today," she told a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigating why the IRS held up applications for tax-exempt status submitted by Tea Party groups.
Then, in response to a question from Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., she confirmed the authenticity of a document described as her written statement to the IRS inspector general last year. "This appears to be my response," she said.
When she refused to answer more questions, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., protested. "She just waived her Fifth Amendment right to privilege. You don't get to tell your side of the story and then not be subject to cross-examination," said Gowdy, a former state and federal prosecutor. "She ought to stand here and answer our questions."
Issa let Lerner leave the hearing. But after nearly six hours of questioning three other witnesses -- none of whom was able to shed light on who in the IRS decided to target Tea Party groups and why -- Issa said he would consider bringing Lerner back. "She made assertions, under oath, in the form of testimony," Issa said.
Lerner's attorney, William Taylor, did not return a call Wednesday.
Steven Salky, who works in Taylor's firm but is not assigned to Lerner's case, wrote a book on the Fifth Amendment, and said what Lerner did was fairly common.
"You can give a very broad statement of your innocence" without jeopardizing your Fifth Amendment rights, he said.
There's also precedent on the other side. In one case, William Presser -- the father of famed Teamster's boss Jackie Presser -- was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate in 1958 to testify about alleged misappropriation of union funds. Presser was charged with contempt for refusing to answer questions after he testified that he had complied with a subpoena to the best of his ability.
"Presser said less than the witness this morning," said Stephen Ryan, a former chief counsel to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who's now a Washington lawyer and lobbyist. "I always considered the Presser case as an extreme position on waiver, and wonder if it would be 'good law' today. Now we may find out."
Some experts said Lerner should have been released from having to appear as soon as her lawyer told the committee she would plead the Fifth.
"Issa's committee is looking for headlines, not for any facts," said Robert Muse, a former Watergate staff attorney who teaches congressional investigations at Georgetown Law School. "Congressman Issa is simply trying to create a circus-like environment at the expense of someone who's trying to invoke her constitutional rights. Congress cannot bring a person before it simply to create a sense of personal embarrassment, or to humiliate them."
Contributing: Brad Heath
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