A US House of Representatives committee taking the US Congress’ latest look at the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) mistreatment of conservative groups will apparently have to do so without input from the star witness.
IRS official Lois Lerner was to invoke her constitutional right to not answer questions yesterday at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, her lawyer told the panel in a letter.
Lerner triggered the IRS scandal at a legal conference nearly two weeks ago when she revealed that the federal tax agency had subjected the Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny during parts of the election seasons in 2010 and last year.
Lerner, 62, an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001, heads the unit that decides whether groups qualify for the tax-exempt status. She has come under fire from both Republicans and Democrats, including Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, who said in an interview on Tuesday that she should lose her job.
In Lerner’s absence, the spotlight will be on another witness: US Department of the Treasury deputy secretary Neal Wolin. J. Russell George, a Treasury inspector-general, has said he told Wolin in the middle of last year that he was investigating the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, a report that was released last week showed.
That means Wolin was the highest-ranking Treasury official to have known about the probe during last year’s elections, making him a focus of interest for lawmakers.
Lerner’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, had requested that she be excused from yesterday’s hearing, writing in the letter that forcing her to appear “would have no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her.”
However, the committee has subpoenaed her and panel members say they expect her to attend.
In writing that Lerner would use her Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination, Taylor said that the US Department of Justice has started an investigation into the IRS controversy.
He also referred to a letter she received last week from Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, saying she “provided false or misleading information on four separate occasions last year” to committee queries.
Committee staff questioned Lerner and other IRS officials last year after receiving complaints from Ohio Tea Party groups that they were being mistreated by the IRS, said Meghan Snyder, spokesman for Republican Representative Jim Jordan, a member of the committee.
In responses to the committee, Lerner did not mention that Tea Party groups had ever been targeted, documents show.
Lerner also met twice early last year with staff from the House’s Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee to discuss the issue, according to a timeline constructed by committee staff. The timeline said she did not mention the targeting at either meeting.
Lerner’s revelation and apology at the May 10 legal conference came in response to a question that IRS officials later acknowledged they had planted with an audience member. Lerner’s disclosure came days before George released his report detailing the IRS’ actions.
George’s report found that in June 2011, Lerner discovered that her unit was searching for organizations with words like “tea party” or “patriots” in their applications and subjecting them to tougher questions. She ordered the initial Tea Party criteria to be scrapped, but it later evolved to include groups that promoted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the report said. Lawmakers are curious about why the practice did not stop entirely.
Lerner has not been disciplined for her role, IRS officials said. However, Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller and another top agency official announced their departures in recent days and many lawmakers believe more heads should roll.