The head of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office that oversees non-profit groups refused to testify on Wednesday at a congressional panel probing abuse at the US tax agency, but defiantly declared she had done nothing wrong.
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations, invoked her Fifth Amendment constitutional rights against self-incrimination, citing accusations by lawmakers that she had earlier provided false testimony.
The IRS is at the core of a swirling scandal that has cast a shadow over US President Barack Obama’s second term. Agents under Lerner’s management were found to have inappropriately scrutinized conservative organizations, including Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status.
While she declined to answer questions by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, Lerner declared: “I have not done anything wrong.”
“I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee,” she said in brief remarks.
After denying Issa’s request to reconsider answering questions, Lerner was dismissed from the hearing, triggering outrage from some Republicans.
“She just testified,” Representative Trey Gowdy said. “She’s waived her right... She ought to stand here and answer our questions.”
Issa appeared to agree and by the end of the five-hour hearing he cautioned the absent Lerner that he aimed to recall her to testify once again at an unnamed date.
The flashpoint was emblematic of a controversy that has turned increasingly acrimonious as lawmakers expressed disbelief that IRS officials were ignorant of wrongdoing that took place within their ranks for 18 months.
“Congress was misled, the American people were misled,” Issa said, highlighting how his panel’s queries to the IRS early last year went largely unanswered. “We knew then that something seemed to be wrong. We knew then that there was smoke.”
However, he said officials such as Lerner and then-IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, who also testified on Wednesday, refused to update Congress of the improprieties after they learned about them.
It was Lerner who made the IRS wrongdoing public this month, days before a US Department of the Treasury inspector general released his report detailing “inappropriate” targeting of conservative groups by the tax agency.
“I am very proud of the work that I have done in government,” Lerner said.
Democrat Stephen Lynch warned that continued stonewalling by IRS officials — who have refused to name anyone directly involved in the abuse or say whether more senior officials knew about it — will leave Congress “no alternative” but to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.
“There will be hell to pay if that’s the route that we choose to go down,” Lynch said.
With Lerner gone, attention turned to Shulman and particularly why he declined to alert Congress about the targeting program when he learned about it in the spring of last year.
Shulman testified before a House panel in March last year and asserted there was “absolutely no targeting” going on, said Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat.
“Even if you did not know it was going on when you testified, you learned about it soon after, but you never corrected the record,” Cummings said.
Shulman stressed that while he had learned of a “Be On the Lookout” list of groups, including the words “Tea Party” or “Patriots” in their names, he did not alert lawmakers because “I didn’t have a full set of facts to come back to Congress or the committee with.”
Shulman eventually apologized for the wrongdoing that went on, but lawmakers sounded incredulous that he did not know what was transpiring on his watch.
“Either there’s a cover-up, or there’s an extreme lack of curiosity on your part,” Republican Mark Meadows said.
Republicans drilled into whether Shulman had discussed the issue with Obama aides.
Shulman testified he never discussed the discrimination with White House staff.
“It would not have been appropriate,” he said.