The U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about her role in scrutinizing Tea Party groups.
The case of Lois Lerner, the former director of exempt organizations at the tax agency, will be referred to the U.S. attorney in Washington for potential prosecution. The House also is set to vote today on asking Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS.
Lerner told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in May 2013 that she had done nothing wrong in the IRS’s focus on the limited government Tea Party groups. She then refused to answer questions, invoking her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Republicans say she waived her right to silence by making the statements proclaiming her innocence.
“Who told Lois Lerner to target conservative Americans?” Representative Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, asked today at a press conference. “That’s what we don’t know.”
The vote to hold Lerner in contempt was 231-187, with six Democrats joining Republicans in favor and no Republicans opposing the resolution.
The House also adopted, 250-168, a resolution asking Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter. Twenty-six Democrats joined Republicans voting for that measure.
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said in an e-mailed statement that she didn’t waive her right to refuse to testify.
“Today’s vote has nothing to do with the facts or the law,” Taylor said. “Its only purpose is to keep the baseless IRS ‘conspiracy’ alive through the mid-term elections.”
Democrats compared the proceedings to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations of Communist influence in the U.S. government in the early 1950s.
“I cannot vote to violate an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight committee.
Lerner’s office was responsible for determining whether groups were too political to qualify for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. Those groups, which don’t have to disclose their donors, can’t have politics as their primary purpose.
Lerner first disclosed the extra scrutiny her office had given to some groups seeking the exemption -- including many linked to the Tea Party movement -- last May 10 in response to a planted question at a conference on taxes. Her comments came just before the agency’s inspector general was set to release a report on the matter.
At least five investigations into the IRS are continuing, including a criminal inquiry at the Justice Department. Lerner was suspended from her job last May and later retired.
The resolution on the contempt citation is H. Res. 574, and the resolution seeking appointment of a special counsel is H. Res. 565.
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