- The one-time head of the U.S. tax authority’s branch overseeing nonprofits won’t testify about a years-long scheme to target conservative groups
- Congress has the power to hold her in contempt, try her and imprison her in the Capitol jail
- That power hasn’t been used in more than 75 years but used to be common in bribery and other cases
- After the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee quickly adjourned Wednesday’s hearing, his Democratic counterpart went ‘ballistic’
David Martosko, U.s. Political Editor
15:46 GMT, 5 March 2014
16:42 GMT, 5 March 2014
Former IRS official Lois Lerner refused for a second time on Wednesday to testify about her role in a scheme to target conservative organizations that applied for tax-exempt status during President Barack Obama’s first term in office.
Lerner risks arrest if she is found in contempt of Congress.
The House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee ruled on June 21, 2013 that Lerner, formerly in charge of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations office, waived her right to invoke the Fifth Amendment during a May 22 hearing when she insisted in a lengthy opening statement that she had done nothing wrong.
Wednesday’s continuation of that hearing was a brief affair, with Oversight Committee Chairman Republican Rep. Darrell Issa adjourning it after Lerner cited the Fifth amendment again and refused to answer questions.
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Lois Lerner, former director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the Internal Revenue Service, claimed the protections of the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify Wednesday about an alleged years-long tea party targeting scheme
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa quickly closed down the hearing after Lerner refused to answer questions
‘I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America! I’m tired of this!’ Democratic Rep. Elijah Cumming shouted after the Republican chairman adjourned Wednesday’s committee hearing without listening to his statement
‘Seeking the truth is the obligation of this committee. I can see no point in going further.’ Issa said. ‘I have no expectation that Mrs. Lerner will cooperate with this committee, and therefore we stand adjourned.’
After angry objections from ranking Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, Issa cut off his microphone, told Lerner, ‘You’re released,’ and said, ‘We’re adjourned. Close it down.’
Cummings continued to complain loudly without the aid of a microphone. The Daily Caller published video of the exchange, titled ‘Cummings goes ballistic.’
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that Lerner can’t be compelled to testify against herself.
But with the committee ruling that Lerner’s statements in May disqualified her from leaning on that right, she becomes subject to arrest if she continues to refuse to answer questions – either as leverage to force her to comply, or simply as punishment for thumbing her nose at Congress.
Tea party activists have insisted that during the 2010 election year, the IRS placed some of their nonprofit groups on hold for more than three years while liberal organizations were quickly given tax-exempt status
Four separate Supreme Court rulings
have confirmed the right of Congress to incarcerate Americans for
contempt, although it hasn’t been done in more than 75 years.
July 2007 Congressional Research Service Report spells out the process:
‘The individual is brought before the House or Senate by the sergeant
at arms, tried at the bar of the body, and can be imprisoned in the
2012 the full House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General
Eric Holder in contempt after he refused to hand over documents relating
to the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun-running sting.
wasn’t arrested, largely because he heads the federal law enforcement
agency that would be responsible for taking him into custody.
lawyer William Taylor has played a cat-and mouse game with committee
Republicans for the past week, at first saying she faced death threats
and wouldn’t appear, then offering to produce her at a sworn deposition,
and at one point saying she would only answer questions if she were
immune from prosecution.
Engelbrech, national coordinator of True the Vote, a conservative group
that claims it was targeted by the IRS, the ATF and other agencies,
said Wednesday that ‘when an alphabet soup of government agencies
descended on and investigated me and my family, I didn’t have the option
of doing what Lerner did today. I had to submit to invasive and
aggressive investigations despite the fact that I had done absolutely
The sideline spat between Issa and Cummings quickly became the talk of Washington on Wednesday.
Lerner refused to testify for the second time, opening her up to the possibility of a contempt charge from Congress
Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, tried to prolong the hearing with what he said was a ‘procedural question’ – but then proceeded to make a statement.
Issa, the Republican firebrand from California, cut off his microphone.
‘Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this,’ Cummings shouted as Issa stood to walk out of the hearing room.
‘If you will sit down and allow me to ask a question – I am a member of a Congress of the United States of America! I am tired of this!’
‘You cannot just have a one-sided investigation,’ Cummings continued while Republican staffers left. ‘There is absolutely something wrong with that, and it is absolutely un-American.’
Issa returned to tell Cummings, ‘We had a hearing. It was adjourned. I gave you an opportunity to ask your questions. You had no questions.’
‘I do have questions,’ the Democrat said, raising his voice again as Issa left to address a waiting phalanx of reporters.
‘Chairman, what are you hiding?’