By Ken Berry
Tension continues to mount over alleged improprieties committed by IRS officials regarding applications for tax-exempt status by conservative "tea party" groups. In the latest news, Lois Lerner, director of the Exempt Organizations (EO) division, chose to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 22.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations", claimed Lerner. She then asserted that she was pleading the Fifth based on her legal counsel's advice. "I know that some people will assume that I have done something wrong", she reiterated. "I have not."
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked that Lerner reconsider her position, without any success. Eventually, Lerner was dismissed from the hearing, but she could be recalled if the committee sees fit. Some lawmakers were angered that Lerner had delivered an opening statement before asserting her Fifth Amendment right.
Lerner is currently at the forefront of the scandal brewing over the national tax collection agency's use of search terms like "tea party" and "patriots" to target groups for increased scrutiny. But this isn't the first time the EO Director has come under fire. Issa and other panel members pointed to four other occasions, dating back to 2012, where they believed that Lerner misled them about activities involving conservative groups.
Both the Treasury Department and the White House have indicated they were in the dark about the targeting, although they have admitted to being involved in discussions concerning disclosure of the allegations. But Issa and other Republicans on the panel aren't necessarily convinced. Noting that they had asked the inspector general to investigate matters back in 2012, Issa commented",We knew then that there was smoke."
Lerner isn't the only IRS official under the gun. Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, also appeared before the committee, the first time a senior department official has been called to testify in these proceedings. Wolin acknowledged that the findings in the inspector general's report were "absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable", but he stressed that there was nothing that indicates that the Treasury Department had any role in the activities.
"It is important in this context to make clear that Treasury's longstanding practice – spanning Republican and Democratic administrations – is not to involve itself in the details of the IRS' administration and enforcement of the nation's tax laws", said Wolin.
It seems that every day this story takes another twist or turn. Stay tuned for more developments.