As expected, the House of Representatives today voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, almost a year after the nation’s tax-collection agency first acknowledged and apologized for scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of groups with conservative titles like “Tea Party” and “patriot” in their names.
The contempt citation vote of 231 to 187 was mostly along party lines, although six House Democrats sided with their GOP counterparts. They included representatives Ron Barber of Arizona, John Barrow of Georgia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, and Patrick Murphy of Florida.
House GOP lawmakers want Lerner punished for twice refusing to answer a congressional panel’s questions regarding the IRS targeting scandal.
“There are few government abuses more serious than using the IRS to punish American citizens for their political beliefs,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said. “The very idea of the IRS being used to intimidate and silence critics of a certain political philosophy is egregious.”
According to an article by Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post, Congress has the authority to hold someone in contempt if the person is believed to be obstructing “the proceedings of Congress” or an inquiry by a congressional committee.
The contempt citation now goes to the US Justice Department, where the US Attorney for the District of Columbia could bring the issue to court, according to an article by Rachael Bade of Politico.
The Justice Department has said it is conducting an investigation of the IRS’s actions and that the case “remains a priority”; however, criminal charges are not expected to be filed against Lerner. If charges are filed and Lerner is convicted, she could face up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000.
The House on Wednesday also passed a separate measure calling for US Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel in the IRS investigation.
The former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations (EO) division, Lerner is one of the key players in the targeting scandal, which came to light almost 12 months ago in a report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. 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 and Government Reform 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.
Democrats have contended that House GOP lawmakers cannot legally pursue contempt charges against Lerner, arguing that the House Oversight Committee did not explicitly overrule her Fifth Amendment assertion or clearly direct her to testify or face contempt.
“We are in a situation today where we need to be very clear with what’s happening,” said Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the House Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat. “Not since McCarthy has this been tried, that is the stripping away of an American citizen’s constitutional right not to incriminate themselves and then holding them in contempt criminally. We are better than that. We are so much better.”
Republicans have countered 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 hearing last March.
The House Oversight panel on April 10 voted along party lines in favor of holding Lerner in contempt of Congress. The committee’s action came one 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 Holder requesting he take Lerner to court.
House Republicans want Lerner to face criminal charges for improperly influencing the IRS to take action against conservative organizations, disclosing confidential taxpayer information, and impeding an investigation.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) noted today that he would ask for the criminal prosecution to be dropped if Lerner agrees to answer lawmakers’ questions about the IRS controversy.
In a statement, Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor III, said, “Today's vote has nothing to do with the facts or the law. Its only purpose is to keep the baseless IRS 'conspiracy' alive through the midterm elections. It is unfortunate that the majority party in the House has put politics before a citizen's constitutional rights.”