“I will not answer any questions or testify about the subject matter of this committee's meeting.”
It wasn’t as dramatic as some of Hollywood interpretations, but when Lois Lerner, one of the IRS officials at the heart of the agency’s current scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, it was met by frustration by some committee members and seen as a rarity in congressional hearings by onlookers.
Chairman Darrel Issa said he respected Lerner’s right to refuse testimony, saying, “We should not use this either for political gain or for any indication that it is anything other than somebody's right.”
However, it has happened many times. Here are a few recent and famous examples:
Barry Cadden, the co-owner of a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy that was blamed for a fungal meningitis outbreak that claimed the lives of dozens of people in 2012, refused to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last November. “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer,” he said.
One of the officials involved in an $823,000 General Services Administration event in Las Vegas refused to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee in April 2012. Jeff Neely, the regional commissioner who was in charge of the event, also invoked his rights to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The investigation into the GSA found widespread abuse of taxpayer money, which brought down several top officials at the agency.
Fast and Furious
Patrick Cunningham, the chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, invoked his right and refused to appear before the House Oversight Committee in January 2012 in connection to the Fast and Furious scandal. This investigation centered on an operation gone wrong, where U.S. officials sent more than 2,000 guns to a Mexican drug cartel—weapons that were later found at the site of the murder of a U.S. border agent. Cunningham’s lawyers said he was innocent of any wrongdoing, despite his invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Executives of a green-energy company called Solyndra that went bankrupt despite heavy federal funding pleaded the Fifth and refused to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September 2011. Officials said they could not provide proper answers because of an ongoing investigation. Rep. Fred Upton, the chairman of the committee, asked who Solyndra was “trying to protect and what are they trying to hide” by not testifying. The company recede nearly $530 million from taxpayers, and Republicans cited it as a reason the federal government should not fund green-energy initiatives.
U.S. Attorney Firings
Monica Goodling, an aide to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served under George W. Bush, invoked her rights and refused to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007 about the administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys for their political leanings. “The hostile and questionable environment in the present congressional proceedings is at best ambiguous; more accurately, the environment can be described as legally perilous for Ms. Goodling,” her lawyer said in a letter. “The potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling, even from her most truthful and accurate testimony, under these circumstances is very real.”
One of the greatest home-run hitters of all time, Mark McGwire, refused to testify before the House Government Reform Committee in March 2005, during a hearing on the use of steroids in baseball. “I'm not going to go into the past or talk about my past,” he said at the time. McGuire later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.
Former Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay asserted his rights before the Senate Commerce Committee in February 2002, declining to answer questions about the energy company’s bankruptcy that was recognized as one of the largest in American history, because of company executives’ practice of hiding profit losses and debt. Lay was eventually found guilty of several federal charges, but he died before he could serve his eventual sentence.
Lincoln Savings and Loan
While before the House Banking Committee in November 1989, Charles Keating, the former owner of Lincoln Savings and Loan, invoked his rights and refused to answer questions during a hearing on one of the largest failures of a savings institution. Committee members accused Keating of successfully delaying the closing of the company for two years. The federal government took over the company, costing U.S. taxpayers $2 billion.
In the midst of a congressional investigation into whether the U.S. used weapons sales to Iran to funnel profits to rebel groups in Nicaragua, Lt. Col. Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, originally refusing to testify before the Senate committees leading the investigation in 1986. North would later testify before a joint congressional committee, where he admitted to lying about the controversy.
When testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948, John Abt, an American lawyer, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights,refusing the answer questions about his Communist Party USA membership. He also refused to answer questions about his relationship to Whittaker Chambers, a former member of CPUSA and a Soviet spy who later renounced those ties. Alger Hiss, who was involved in the creation of the United Nations and later accused of secretly being a Communist while working for the federal government, was also involved in the House investigation. He, however, testified before the committee.