With the House tax-writing panel poised to seek criminal charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner for her role in scrutinizing tea-party groups, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee are sounding alarms — but not out of concern for Lerner.
Their fear is that prosecution of Lerner by the Justice Department could lead to unwarranted disclosure of confidential taxpayer information — information obtained by the committee under a special investigative authority.
"This would be the first use of the committee's power to disclose confidential taxpayer information since the release of Richard Nixon's tax returns in 1974, and I have serious concerns about the appropriateness of such action," Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin said in a statement.
Lerner, the former IRS director of exempt organizations, has been embroiled in the controversy over the targeting of tea-party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for special scrutiny.
"There is already an ongoing Justice Department investigation," said Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
Aides to the committee's Republican chairman, Dave Camp of Michigan, did not respond to requests for comment.
The anticipated closed-door vote by Camp's panel on Wednesday to urge Justice to file at least three criminal charges against Lerner will precede another House committee's deliberations on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee had previously announced it would meet Thursday to discuss Lerner's refusal to answer questions during the panel's probe of the IRS controversy.
According to committee sources, Ways and Means members will convene and then vote to go into executive session to discuss sending a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder referring three charges against Lerner. Details of the specific charges were not immediately available.
Democrats on the panel have been critical of Lerner. In fact, when Lerner resigned her job in September, Levin said her actions constituted "gross mismanagement" of the IRS tax-exempt division and "led to improper handling of applications for tax-exempt status, whether conservative and progressive."
But an aide to Levin said Tuesday that the senior Democrat is worried the planned vote to refer charges to the Justice Department will lead to public release of "a bunch" of taxpayer information that should remain private. The panel, explained the aide, has obtained some information under its so-called 6103 authority, referring to an area of the tax code that prohibits release of certain confidential taxpayer information. But the prohibition might not hold if the information forms the basis for any charges against Lerner.
Meanwhile, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, is pressing ahead with plans to hold a contempt vote against Lerner on Thursday. Lerner twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during hearings before the panel. The committee on Tuesday released a report detailing the reasons for the planned action.
"Lois Lerner's testimony is critical to the Committee's investigation," the report states. "Without her testimony, the full extent of the IRS's targeting of Tea Party applications cannot be known, and the Committee will be unable to fully complete its work."
The report includes emails Lerner purportedly sent to Michael Seto, manager of the technical office in the exempt-organizations division. In one email sent on Feb. 1, 2011, Lerner wrote, "Tea Party Matter very dangerous," and she asked the Office of Chief Counsel to get involved.
Among its other findings is a conclusion that congressional Democrats made misleading claims about the targeting of liberal-oriented groups, too.
Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings has responded to the committee's plans for a contempt action by asserting that the panel could have had Lerner's testimony, but that Issa "rejected her attorney's request for a simply one-week delay when he was out of town."
"That was a shame because so many of our members — Republicans and Democrats — wanted to hear from her," Cummings said in a statement. "Chairman Issa has demonstrated over and over again that he simply does not want to hear from anyone who disagrees with him or has information that does not fit his political narrative — including witnesses, independent legal experts, and even Committee Members like myself."