Democrats accused a House committee of throwing a slab of red meat to its GOP base Wednesday after voting to refer a former IRS official to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
The House Ways and Means Committee said it dug up dirt on Lois Lerner, former head of the IRS’ tax-exempt division, accusing her of improperly influencing agency action, misleading investigators and risking the disclosure of confidential tax information.
Members of the Republican-led committee voted along party lines to refer a letter to the DOJ over unearthed evidence that suggests “Lerner may have violated multiple criminal statutes.”
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, called the stunt “just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain.”
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation,” Taylor said. “She did not mislead Congress.”
Democrats on the committee called the vote a political stunt aimed at hitting GOP drumbeats over made-up scandals.
"It now seems clear that Republican members of the Ways and Means Committee have decided that they do not want to be left behind in the Republican campaign to declare this a scandal and keep it going until November," Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the committee's ranking Democrat, told the Associated Press.
The actions at Wednesday’s session were uncommon on several fronts. The committee opted to hold a rarely-used closed-door session; Democratic efforts to open the proceedings to the public were later rebuffed by the Republican chairman. According to NBC News, the committee disclosed confidential tax information to the public for the first time since 1974.
Republicans have harnessed the issue as a rallying cry for the base in the year since revelations that IRS agents improperly singled out tea party and conservative groups for heightened scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. The agency acknowledged that officials had acted improperly, and Lerner eventually resigned at the request of President Obama.
Lerner twice invoked her constitutional right against self-incrimination during hearings before the House Oversight Committee. That committee is set to vote Thursday on a resolution to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. If that moves forward, the measure would then go to the full House for a vote.
House Speaker John Boehner issued a sharp warning to the ex-IRS official Wednesday.
"As I've said, if Lois Lerner continues to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt," he said in a statement.