You can run but you can't hide. Lois Lerner, the embattled former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations (EO) division who has been at the center of the "Tea Party scandal," twice invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at Congressional hearings before she unceremoniously retired. Now two House committees are seeking criminal prosecution against the former IRS official.
The Tea Party scandal has been simmering ever since it was revealed last year that IRS staffers targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny when applying for tax-exempt status. Several Congressional committees, as well as the Department of Justice (DOJ), are currently investigating the matter. Lerner was in charge of the EO division when the improprieties occurred.
On April 9, the House Ways and Means Committee voted 23-14 to formally request criminal prosecution against Lerner. The vote indicates that the Republican-led committee, chaired by Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), intends to ratchet up the pressure. "If we don't stand up for the right of the American people, who else will?" Camp said after the vote.
The recommendation for criminal prosecution was made in a strongly worded letter spanning 14 pages that was sent to US Attorney General Eric Holder. It claimed that Lerner had violated multiple criminal statutes by denying the constitutional rights of the conservative groups that were illegally singled out, providing misleading statements to investigators and risking disclosure of confidential taxpayer information.
"Today's action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue." said Camp. "DOJ has a responsibility to act, and Lois Lerner must be held accountable. It is also important that the American people know what really occurred at the IRS, so this powerful agency cannot target American taxpayers ever again." If convicted, Lerner would face up to 11 years in prison, noted Fox News.
The ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin (D-MI), took umbrage at Camp's action. "I was among the first to call for Lois Lerner to resign and for her to be relieved from her duties," he said. "This executive session isn't about any of us condoning the mismanagement at the IRS tax exempt division. And, it certainly isn't about any of us condoning potential criminal activity. Indeed, the Justice Department is investigating the entire matter to determine whether there should be criminal charges. The Justice Department has access to all of the same documents as we do. They have the ability to conduct interviews of all involved and to compel testimony."
On a separate front, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted on April 11 to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the panel. As expected, the 21-12 outcome followed party lines after panel members engaged in a heated debate.
The top Democrat on the committee, Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), argued that Republicans can't legally pursue contempt charges against Lerner because they did not explicitly overrule her Fifth Amendment rights or specifically direct her to answer the committee's questions. But Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) countered that Cummings is wrong on both the facts and the law. Issa claims that the committee has effectively overruled Lerner's rights by the vote. Legal experts are divided on the outcome.
Despite the vote on the resolution, the entire House would still need to approve the measure before Lerner could be sanctioned for contempt. Essentially, "contempt of Congress" encompasses any action that directly obstructs the ability of Congress to exercise its Constitutional powers, explained a Washington Post article. In the past, it has been used to censure individuals who refuse to appear before a congressional committee or provide documents based on a subpoena.
Practically speaking, being held in contempt of Congress is less of a threat to Lerner than the other charges that may be levied against her. Because it's difficult to punish government officials in this manner, the Justice Department often declines to prosecute these cases. In any event, Lerner and her attorneys will certainly have their hands full as this drama continues to unfold in our nation's capital.