Former IRS official Lois Lerner once again pleaded the Fifth, invoking her right against self-incrimination in a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of right-learning groups.
“On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer that question,” she responded to each question posed to her by committee chairman Darrell Issa.
In a hearing that lasted just 18 minutes, Issa, a California Republican, peppered Lerner with questions, revealing the contents of e-mails the committee has obtained during the course of its investigation. “Ms. Lerner, what did you mean by ‘tea-party matter very dangerous,’” he asked, flashing the full contents of the e-mail on an adjacent screen. “Ms. Lerner, why would you say that tea-party cases were very dangerous?”
Issa reconvened a hearing that began in late May and technically never adjourned. At the May 22 hearing, Lerner pleaded the Fifth declined to answer the committee’s questions after making an opening statement in which she declared her innocence. “I have not done anything wrong,” Lerner said. “I have not broken any laws. I have not broken any IRS rules and regulations and I have not provided any false information to this or any other congressional committee.”
In June, the Oversight Committee voted that by making a voluntary opening statement, Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment rights. Today, Lerner told the committee that her lawyer, William Taylor, had advised her that is not the case.
Lerner is the former head of the IRS’s exempt-organizations division who last May revealed that the IRS had inappropriately singled out conservative groups applying for tax exemption.
Her refusal to answer questions allows the committee, if it chooses, to begin the process of finding her in contempt of Congress for obstructing the work of a congressional committee. Issa dangled that prospect at the outset of Wednesday’s hearing: “If Ms. Lerner continues to refuse to answer questions from our members while she is under a subpoena, the committee will proceed to consider whether she should be held in contempt,” he said.
House Speaker John Boehner also addressed the possibility of holding Lerner in contempt, a matter on which the full House would need to vote. “I’ll wait for a report from Chairman Issa about what happened and what will happen,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday, “but at some point…she has to testify or she should be held in contempt.”
As Issa moved to adjourn the hearing, saying that he had “no expectation Ms. Lerner will cooperate with this committee,” the committee’s ranking member, Elijah Cummings, interjected, slamming Issa’s leadership in a angry three-minute diatribe.
“Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this,” Cummings said. “You just cannot do this.”
Issa adjourned the hearing and had Cummings’s microphone turned off, but the Maryland congressman shouted over the din.
“I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America, and I am tired of this,” said the Maryland Democrat, who has long said it’s time to call off the investigation into the IRS.
“You cannot just have a one-sided investigation,” Cummings shouted. ”There is absolutely something wrong with that and it is absolutely un-American.”