As expected, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today voted in favor of holding ex-IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress because she had twice refused to answer the panel’s questions regarding the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.
The panel’s vote went along party lines: 21 (Republicans) to 12 (Democrats). The resolution will now go to the full, Republican-led House of Representatives for a vote, where lawmakers will consider whether to ask the US Justice Department to seek criminal prosecution against Lerner, the Washington Postreported. The full House vote could possibly occur before month’s end, CNN reported.
“In demanding answers and holding a powerful government official accountable for her failure to meet her legal obligations, this committee did its job,” Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) said in a written statement today following the vote. “If the House takes up and passes the resolution, the matter will be referred to the US attorney for the District of Columbia, which statute requires he take to a grand jury.”
Lerner, the former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations (EO) division, is one of the key players in the targeting scandal, in which the agency admitted 11 months ago to giving Tea Party and other conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status extra scrutiny. The EO division is where applications for tax-exempt status are reviewed. Lerner retired from the IRS last September.
During two hearings before the House Oversight Committee – one on May 22, 2013, and the second on March 5, 2014 – Lerner refused to answer lawmakers’ questions about the targeting scandal and chose to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. She maintained her innocence before declining to answer questions during one of her appearances.
According to the Washington Post, Democrats contend that the committee cannot legally pursue contempt charges against Lerner, arguing that the panel has not explicitly overruled her Fifth Amendment assertion or clearly directed her to testify or face contempt.
Republicans counter that the committee effectively overruled Lerner’s refusal to testify by voting that she waived her Fifth Amendment right by declaring herself innocent. They also say the committee advised Lerner that she could face contempt charges for refusing to answer questions at the March hearing.
The House Oversight Committee’s action comes a day after the House Ways and Means Committee voted 23 to 14 to publicly release its evidence against Lerner and to send a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting he take Lerner to court.
Republicans want her charged for improperly influencing the IRS to take action against conservative organizations, disclosing confidential taxpayer information (a felony), and impeding an investigation.