Democrats Say Prosecuting Lois Lerner Could Violate Your Privacy

One panel plans to seek criminal charges against the former IRS official for her role in the controversy, while another considers holding her in contempt of Congress.

Caption:WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: House Oversight and Government Reform Committee member Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) (L) takes a photograph with his iPhone as Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (R) swears in former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner (back to camerae) during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building March 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Issa adjuourned after Lerner exercised her Fifth Amendment right not to speak about the IRS targeting scandal during the hearing.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
April 8, 2014, 5:08 p.m.

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.”

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