Lois Lerner, the former Director of Tax Exempt Organizations (EO) at the Internal Revenue Service, held a position with IRS for twelve years. She will, however, likely be remembered most for a speech that took just a few minutes. On May 22, 2013, Lerner was asked to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. She refused to testify, instead offering a statement, explaining: (downloads as a pdf):
I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.
And while I would very much like to answer the Committee’s questions today, I’ve been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify or answer questions related to the subject matter of this hearing. After very careful consideration, I have decided to follow my counsel’s advice and not testify or answer any of the questions today.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, cried foul, asserting that Lerner’s statement was the equivalent of a waiver of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Others weren’t so sure.
Nonetheless, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced last month – nearly a year after Lerner’s appearance – that it would pursue contempt charges. Two days later, the Committee voted along party lines to proceed with contempt charges.
Procedurally, the next step was to send the resolution to the full House of Representatives for approval. The House considered the resolution, H. Res. 574 just after 4:00 p.m. today (Wednesday, May 7). The resolution read:
Recommending that the House of Representatives find Lois G. Lerner, former Director, Exempt Organizations, Internal Revenue Service, in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with a subpoena duly issued by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The House debated the resolution for nearly an hour before Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) postponed the proceedings.
Just about an hour later, the measure was revisited as “unfinished business.” This time, after a limited debate, the measure passed. The vote was 231 Yeas to 187 Nays. Of the votes, 225 of the Yeas were from Republicans; all of the Nays were from Democrats. Thirteen Representatives did not vote.
What comes next? The matter will now be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. What happens from there is anyone’s guess: the U.S. Attorney’s Office hasn’t pursued criminal contempt charges since 1983 when the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Anne Gorsuch Buford, refused to turn over documents which had been requested by Congress.
If convicted, Lerner could face jail time and a fine of up to $100,000. Most believe that won’t happen. In particular, Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor III, is convinced Lerner won’t be convicted, saying, “There is not a court in this country that will hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress.” Taylor has the numbers on his side: no American has been successfully prosecuted for invoking Fifth Amendment rights before Congress.
Lerner retired from the IRS last September, just a few months after making the tax organization scandal public during a disastrous appearance at an American Bar Association conference.
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