WASHINGTON—Last Wednesday, former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner again invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify before a House committee investigating the agency’s improper targeting of conservative groups. One week later, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has laid the groundwork for holding her in contempt of Congress, releasing a blistering report about her involvement in the scandal.
“In the wake of Ms. Lerner’s refusal to testify and answer questions, this report offers detailed evidence about steps she took to crack down on organizations that exercised their constitutional rights to free political speech,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the oversight committee.
The Republican-controlled committee uses Lerner’s own public statements and private emails to build the case against her in the 141-page report. It says Lerner, the former director of the IRS tax-exempt division, was “extensively involved” in improperly scrutinizing conservative groups and repeatedly provided false testimony to the committee—dating back to when it opened an investigation into the alleged targeting in February 2012—telling lawmakers no evaluation criteria had changed.
“Other IRS employees would later testify that the level of scrutiny Lerner ordered for the Tea Party cases was unprecedented,” the report said.
In May 2012, Lerner told the committee her division was only sending normal questions to groups seeking nonprofit status, but last year the IRS itself recognized some questions were inappropriate. President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats maintain the improper questions were incidental and had no political roots.
The report provides evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which eliminated limits on corporate political spending, motivated Lerner’s actions. “Perhaps the FEC will save the day,” she opined in one email. In a 2010 appearance at Duke University, Lerner called the Citizens United ruling a “huge blow” that overturned 100 years of precedent. “They want the IRS to fix the problem,” she said.
“It’s not the job of the IRS to overrule the Supreme Court, and it’s not the job of the IRS to crush political movements its leaders dislike,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents 41 targeted groups who are suing the government and federal officials, including Lerner. “This report underscores what we have known for many months now: Lois Lerner’s maliciousness and corruption are well documented and very clear.”
The report shows Lerner was acutely aware of the political implications of IRS actions. In response to an emailed story about the influential Koch brothers—who founded Americans for Prosperity—she wrote to colleagues that they should “definitely” begin to examine 501(c)(4) regulations: “We need to be cautious so it isn’t a per se political project. More a c4 project that will look at levels of lobbying and pol. activity along with exempt activity.”
That project appears to have turned into the proposed regulations for 501(c)(4) organizations released in November, which would dramatically reduce the amount of political activity social welfare organizations are allowed to engage in. The new guidelines have come under intense criticism and drew more than 140,000 public comments. But some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., only hours after the Lerner report became public, say the new rules are necessary.
Among other findings, the report shows Lerner sent confidential tax information to her personal email account, and she had always planned to retire in fall 2013. House Democrats said Lerner, who retired in September, was pushed out after an inspector general report revealed the targeting last May, but the committee asserts she was never punished in any way.
The report also suggests Lerner “engaged in questionable tactics to target conservative groups seeking to expand their political involvement” while she worked for the Federal Election Commission (FEC), before coming to the IRS. “She brazenly subjected Republican groups to rigorous investigations,” but “similar Democratic groups did not receive the same scrutiny.”