Politics & Policy

A Person of Privilege?

Lois Lerner was too clever by half.

Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of tax-exempt groups, took her too-clever-by-half act to Congress yesterday and may have waived her right to claim her Fifth Amendment privilege in the process. Appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she couldn’t resist citing a little history, bragging on her public service, instructing the committee as to the purpose of the Fifth Amendment, and proclaiming her innocence of everything the committee might be interested in — all before asserting her Fifth Amendment privilege.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) was a bit taken aback. He had never seen anybody try that before. Neither had I. Witnesses and lawyers know, or should know, that you can’t selectively invoke the Fifth Amendment — that is, partially testify. That is why, if a decision is made to take the Fifth, a lawyer will instruct his client to invoke it after almost every question, after identity is established, out of an abundance of caution. You don’t want your client to unintentionally waive the privilege.

#ad#The reason for the “selectivity” rule is to prevent the distortion of the record or the perversion of justice. What if a witness testified as to his side of the story and then took the Fifth on cross-examination? No fair. So now Issa is planning to call her back and take the position that she waived the privilege and must testify or, presumably, face contempt charges. So did she waive the privilege? As you might expect, the matter is not quite as simple as it appears.

As best I can remember, there is no case on point involving a congressional hearing. Although court cases, both criminal and civil, are applicable, though somewhat different standards are applied, the general rule as to waiver is as I’ve stated. Even in the court decisions, however, there is probably no case on point. As I stated, people simply don’t usually get themselves in this position. Also, the cases are very fact-specific.

No two cases are alike. However, in light of the purpose of the waiver rule, I think Ms. Lerner has a real problem. And it’s not just because of the statement she made yesterday. Apparently, Ms. Lerner made statements to the committee or committee staff before yesterday, either in person, answering written questions, or both, regarding the committee’s IRS-targeting investigation. The courts have held that a person can be deemed to have waived the privilege in prior testimony if the testimony was part of the “same proceeding.” Seems pretty clear that it was: For example, one court has held that grand-jury testimony was part of the same proceeding as the subsequent trial. So if, in prior testimony, she revealed an incriminating fact, the privilege cannot be invoked to avoid discussion of the details.

Then add the fact that Issa got her to verify at least some of her prior written statements yesterday, and supplement that with her statement as to her innocence, etc., and one must conclude that she may pay dearly for her little moment of indulgence. It was about as clever as planting a question in an out-of-the-way conference on a Friday afternoon in order to have the scandal dribble out mainly unnoticed. It may well get the same results.

— Fred Thompson is a former U.S. senator from Tennessee.

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