Oversight Committee Yawns As Lerner Demands Immunity in Exchange for Testimony

by Eliana Johnson

Lois Lerner, the IRS official who led the agency’s Exempt Organizations division while tea-party groups were targeted for extra scrutiny, is demanding immunity in exchange for her testimony, but the House Oversight Committee is not going to make the first move to cut a deal — at least right now.  

Lerner’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, told Politico that the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating the scandal, “can obtain her testimony tomorrow by doing it the easy way … immunity,” adding, “That’s the way to resolve all of this.”

Without interviewing Lerner, the committee is proceeding with its investigation and at this point, is not particularly eager to get her testimony. According to a source familiar with the investigation, oversight officials have not spoken with Lerner or Taylor in over a month, since May 22 when Lerner professed her innocence at a committee hearing before invoking her constitutional rights in order to fend off questions from lawmakers. Though the source says the committee is interested in discussing any deal Taylor brings to them, government lawyers are not proposing one of their own. Any agreement reached would have to be approved by the Oversight Committee and the Department of Justice, which is conducting its own investigation into the targeting scandal.  

Meanwhile, investigators continue to interview IRS officials and to piece together the events of the past three years. Their understanding of the significance of Lerner’s testimony may change — in fact, it may have already — and they could ultimately conclude that it is irrelevant to their investigation. 

The committee’s reticence with regard to Lerner constitutes a change in tone from just days ago, when the panel voted that she waived her Fifth Amendment at the May hearing when she appeared before them. Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, too, appeared poised to call Lerner back to Capitol Hill, saying, “The Committee remains focused on hearing Ms. Lerner’s full and truthful testimony.” Now, though, that appears less certain. 

It is unclear whether Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights because she has knowledge of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups that would advance the GOP-led Oversight Commitee’s investigation, which is being conducted in cooperation with the Ways and Means Committee. The IRS official, who was placed on administrative leave in May after she refused to tender her resignation, had other reasons to fear being put a position to make self-incriminating statements. When the Oversight Committee asked her on February 24 of last year whether the IRS’s criteria for evaluating tax-exemption applications had changed at any point, she said that they had not. But the IG report and written responses that Lerner herself provided to the committee indicate that she ordered specialists handling tea-party applications to change objectionable criteria including the terms “tea party,” “9/12 Project,” and “patriots,” after she was briefed on those criteria in June 2011. 

Lerner remains under subpoena by the Oversight Committee and is required to appear before the panel if chairman Darrell Issa issues a call to reconvene the hearing at which she initially appeared in May. If he does so, and Lerner once again invokes her Fifth Amendment rights in response to questions from lawyers or simply fails to show up, the commitee’s vote last week allows Congress to initiate contempt proceedings against her.