WASHINGTON—This congressional hearing ended in less than 20 minutes.
For the second time in less than a year, former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner declined to answer questions before a House committee investigating the agency’s targeting of conservative groups.
Lerner, the former director of exempt organizations for the IRS, invoked the Fifth Amendment numerous times while Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, peppered her with questions about the agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Last May, Lerner also invoked her constitutional right not to incriminate herself during a House hearing before the same committee. On Wednesday, Issa cut the hearing short. Members will now consider whether Lerner should be held in contempt.
Republican lawmakers argue that the targeting began when the Obama administration pressured the IRS and the U.S. Treasury Department to find ways around a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campaign donations that angered Democrats. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision overturned a century of precedent prohibiting corporations from giving to political campaigns. President Barack Obama criticized the ruling in front of the justices during his 2010 State of the Union Address, and Republicans contend the IRS felt heightened pressure to act. Lerner herself talked publicly during an appearance at Duke University in October 2010 about how “everyone was up in arms because they don’t like it” and wanted the IRS to “fix the problem” before the 2010 election.
Issa began his line of questioning during today’s hearing by asking Lerner about these comments.
“My counsel has advised me I have not waived my constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment,” Lerner answered. “On his advice, I will decline to answer any question on the subject matter of this hearing.”
Issa pressed on. He quizzed Lerner about an email she wrote calling the “Tea Party matter very dangerous.” He asked her about another email she wrote telling subordinates they needed to be “cautious” so their efforts wouldn’t be perceived as a “political project.” Issa questioned Lerner about testimony during past hearings from others who claimed Lerner told them Tea Party cases had to undergo a multi-tiered review.
Each time Lerner answered with the same statement: “On the advice of my counsel I respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer the question.”
Issa hurled three more questions at Lerner, asking about email exchanges concerning the writing of new regulations on political speech for certain groups and asking if she agreed with an Obama statement that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in the IRS’s targeting. When Lerner continued to refuse to answer, Issa ended the hearing before other lawmakers could ask their own questions.
“Ladies and gentleman, seeking the truth is the obligation of this committee,” Issa declared. “I can see no point in going further. I have no expectation that Ms. Lerner will cooperate with this committee and therefore we shall adjourn.”
That sparked a verbal tussle between Issa and Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland and the committee’s ranking member. Cummings demanded that he get to ask a question. When Cummings’ question turned into a lengthy statement, Issa shut off the microphone and walked out of the hearing room. Cummings continued to talk in a loud voice, calling this a “one-sided” investigation and arguing that the IRS scandal should not be blamed on the Obama White House or on Democrats. Cummings, also expressing disappointment that Lerner had refused to testify, pinned the targeting on “gross mismanagement” within the IRS.
Lerner’s appearance on Wednesday marked the second time she invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege. On May 22, 2013, at a hearing before the same committee, Lerner appeared under subpoena and declined to answer questions. But at that hearing Lerner did make an opening statement professing her innocence. Lawmakers later determined that Lerner had waived her right not to testify by voluntarily reading her statement. Saying her subpoena remained in effect, Issa recalled Lerner and considered Wednesday’s hearing a continuation of last May’s hearing.
After this second refusal to answer questions, House Speaker John Boehner had a warning for Lerner: “At some point, I believe that she has to testify, or she should be held in contempt (of Congress).”
The House Oversight Committee’s investigation into the targeting scandal is now beginning its third year. Republicans argue that the added scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status amounts to denying some Americans their right to free political speech because of their political beliefs. Issa’s committee has conducted 33 interviews in five hearings and is still pressuring the IRS to release emails that Issa believes will shed more light on how the IRS targeted certain groups. The agency has not fully cooperated, specifically withholding emails that detail Lerner’s activities while overseeing its exempt organizations department. The Treasury Department also has refused to hand over certain documents.
A review released last May of the IRS’s tax-exempt applications found that the IRS did not approve a single group calling itself “Tea Party” after February 2010.
Before Wednesday’s hearing, Lerner’s attorney reached out to Issa’s staff asking for testimony in exchange for immunity. Her attorney also asked for a one-week delay. But the hearing went on as scheduled.
Moments after the hearing abruptly ended, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, began issuing press releases targeting Democrats in tight reelection fights. The releases tie the Democrats to Lerner and the IRS scandal.
“Rep. Ron Barber has joined his Democrat colleagues in opposing legislation aimed at reining in the IRS, preventing abuse, and holding the IRS accountable for targeting the political beliefs of individuals,” read one release aimed at the Democratic congressman for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.