Lois Lerner is pleading the fifth.
The IRS official who heads the tax-exempt division at the Internal Revenue Service exercised her right to not testify as a witness against herself at a House Oversight committee hearing on the IRS’ past targeting of conservative groups.
Lerner on Wednesday insisted, however, that “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.”
She acknowledged that “some people will assume that I have done something wrong. I have not” and that she was taking the advice of her legal counsel.
News surfaced earlier this month that the tax collecting agency had wrongly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt statues for extra scrutiny, including the Tea Party, 18 months before the 2012 election. The revelations led to the resignation of acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller and Joseph Grant, commissioner of the IRS’ tax exempt and government entities division.
President Obama–who has said he was unaware of the IRS’ practice–has promised to hold other IRS officials accountable and work with Congress to make sure “this doesn’t happen again.”
In June 2011, Lerner learned at a meeting that conservative groups were being targeted, according to the inspector general report. The division subsequently switched to more general search criteria. Six months later, she met with some members of Congress to discuss the issue, but didn’t bring up the targeting of conservative groups, according to the IG report.
Lerner, two weeks ago, was the first IRS official to publicly acknowledge that the agency had targeted the groups, calling it “absolutely inappropriate.” She argued, however, that the motive was not political and that it was merely an effort to handle the influx of applications of groups seeking tax-exempt status. Some are calling for her resignation, and Lerner –who started at the IRS in 2001, has lawyered up with William W. Taylor III, who represented former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss Kahn, who was accused of sexual assault.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa asked Lerner to reconsider testifying, but she declined. Issa eventually dismissed Lerner but said she could be “subject to recall.”
Lerner’s decision to take the fifth stirred up anger among Republican officials at the hearing.
“The irony is inescapable,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. “Ms. Lerner gets to exercise her constitutional rights but she won’t stay here and answer questions about the constitutional rights of thousands of Americans who were denied by her actions.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said the committee should operate more like a courtroom.
“You don’t get to tell your side of the story and not be subjected to cross examination,” he said. “That’s not the way it works. She waived her right to Fifth Amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement, she ought to stand here and answer our questions.”
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland countered that the committee in fact does not operate like a federal court room. Lerner “does have a right [to take plead the fifth], and we have to adhere to that,” said Cummings.
This is the third congressional hearing on the IRS scandal. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general, former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman and Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin are also expected to testify on Wednesday.
Watch Lerner invoke the Fifth.