House Votes to Hold Former IRS Official Lois Lerner in Contempt

Republicans take their campaign against the agency to the next level.

Lois Lerner, former director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), listens during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill March 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chairman Darrell Issa(R-CA) questioned witness Lerner, to see if the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting US citizens based on their political beliefs. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
May 7, 2014, 3:04 p.m.

The House voted to hold former In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice of­fi­cial Lois Lern­er in con­tempt on a 231-187 vote Wed­nes­day, as Re­pub­lic­ans work to un­cov­er the depth of Lern­er’s in­volve­ment in the agency’s tar­get­ing of con­ser­vat­ive groups from 2010 to May 2013.

Six Demo­crats broke with their party to sup­port the con­tempt vote: Ron Barber of Ari­zona, John Bar­row of Geor­gia, Col­lin Peterson of Min­nesota, Mike McIntyre of North Car­o­lina, Nick Ra­hall of West Vir­gin­ia, and Patrick Murphy of Flor­ida. All are fa­cing Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers in tough dis­tricts for Demo­crats in Novem­ber.

“Who’s been fired over the tar­get­ing of con­ser­vat­ive groups by the IRS? No one that I’m aware of. Who’s gone to jail for vi­ol­at­ing the law? When is the ad­min­is­tra­tion go­ing to tell the Amer­ic­an people the truth?” House Speak­er John Boehner told re­port­ers Wed­nes­day morn­ing. “One would have to guess, if they’re not will­ing to tell the Amer­ic­an people the truth, it must not be very pretty.” 

Lern­er was found in con­tempt of Con­gress after in­vok­ing her Fifth Amend­ment right against self-in­crim­in­a­tion at a House hear­ing last May. House Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue that, be­cause Lern­er gave an open­ing speech testi­fy­ing to her in­no­cence in the in­quiry be­fore plead­ing the Fifth, she had waived her right to re­fuse to testi­fy. Re­pub­lic­ans sub­poenaed Lern­er to testi­fy again in March, when she again as­ser­ted her right to re­main si­lent, set­ting off the con­tempt pro­ceed­ings.

The is­sue is now headed for the courts, where a judge will have to de­term­ine wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans’ claim that Lern­er waived her rights is cor­rect. The House also voted Wed­nes­day to re­quest that At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er ap­point a spe­cial pro­sec­utor in the case. Twenty-six Demo­crats, in­clud­ing those who sup­por­ted the con­tempt vote, backed this second vote. If con­victed, Lern­er faces a max­im­um pen­alty of a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

This is the second time in as many years that the House has voted to hold a mem­ber of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in con­tempt. In 2012, House Re­pub­lic­ans and 17 Demo­crats voted to hold Hold­er in con­tempt of Con­gress over his re­fus­al to turn over doc­u­ments re­lated to the Fast and Furi­ous scan­dal. That con­tempt vote went nowhere, as mem­bers of the Justice De­part­ment an­nounced they would not pur­sue crim­in­al charges or a grand jury against the head of their own de­part­ment. The ad­min­is­tra­tion later in­voked ex­ec­ut­ive priv­ilege over the doc­u­ments in ques­tion.

But Re­pub­lic­ans say they feel more con­fid­ent that the con­tempt vote against Lern­er will be suc­cess­ful. “Eric Hold­er, of course, is the highest law-en­force­ment of­ficer in the coun­try. Lois Lern­er is not,” said Rep. John Flem­ing, R-La. “And so she doesn’t en­joy the same level of pro­tec­tion that he does per­son­ally, and also she can’t claim ex­ec­ut­ive priv­ilege, which Eric Hold­er per­haps can.”

“There’s a fairly sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ence between ask­ing [Hold­er] to … pro­sec­ute him­self and someone else,” a seni­or House Re­pub­lic­an aide said.

But it’s un­likely that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to Con­gress’s hold­ing Lern­er in con­tempt will be any dif­fer­ent. Lern­er has re­portedly already been in­ter­viewed by the Justice De­part­ment, and an­onym­ous “law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials” told The Wall Street Journ­al in Janu­ary that no crim­in­al charges would be filed against IRS of­fi­cials over their tar­get­ing of con­ser­vat­ive groups. Pres­id­ent Obama told Fox News dur­ing his Su­per Bowl in­ter­view that he does not be­lieve the IRS dis­played “a smidgen of cor­rup­tion” in the mat­ter.

All the same, Re­pub­lic­ans are hope­ful that the con­tempt vote will provide some real pres­sure for Lern­er to testi­fy.

“Ul­ti­mately, she’s go­ing to be forced to either come for­ward and testi­fy, or she’s go­ing to have to ap­ply for im­munity and testi­fy,” Flem­ing says. “And pres­sure will con­tin­ue to mount un­til that hap­pens…. And if not, again, I think there’s a lot of mount­ing evid­ence against her — crim­in­al evid­ence — and so we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to mount the pres­sure and this is just a next step in that dir­ec­tion.”

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