Fireworks at hearing as Lerner pleads Fifth

Lois Lerner, the former director of the IRS agency at the center of the Tea Party targeting controversy, refused to answer questions from congressional investigators on Wednesday for a second time.

Appearing before the House Oversight Committee, Lerner rebutted Republicans by citing her Fifth Amendment rights.

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“On the advice of my counsel, I respectively exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer the question,” she said repeatedly in response to questions from Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Issa asked Lerner several questions about her leadership of the Exempt Organizations office, but each time she refused to provide a substantive response.

At the opening of the hearing, Issa said the panel might consider whether to hold Lerner in contempt if she refused to answer questions. He said she is “uniquely positioned” to weigh in on the targeting controversy.

After she refused to provide responses, Issa said contempt was something that “has to be considered.”

Once Issa exhausted his questions, he quickly adjourned the hearing, at which point things turned contentious. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the panel, demanded an opportunity to speak. Issa at first ignored Cummings, who continued to shout his criticisms of how Republicans have handled the probe, calling the proceedings at one point “un-American.”

Issa turned off Cummings’s microphone as Republican members filed out of the hearing room, but the Democrat continued to air his frustration.

“Let me say what I have to say! I’ve had to listen to you for the last 15 to 20 minutes!” he said. “I am a member of the United States Congress of America! I am tired of this!”

But with Lerner refusing to provide responses, the question becomes what will be the next step in the long-running IRS probe. Issa suggested after the hearing that there were few avenues left to explore.

If Lerner had answered questions, Issa said she could have wrapped up the investigation. Now, investigators will look elsewhere.

“We will undoubtedly have a few more questions to try to find out things she could have answered quickly today,” he said. “It may well be that we have gotten to the bottom of this. At this point roads lead to Ms. Lerner. … It may dead-end with Ms. Lerner.”

Wednesday’s hearing marked the latest skirmish in a long-running standoff between Republicans on the panel and Lerner.

Her appearance marked the end of several days of back and forth between Issa and Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor.

Issa said on Sunday that Lerner had agreed to testify, but her attorney rebutted that claim. 

Originally, Lerner and her attorney suggested that she would only answer questions if granted immunity from prosecution, but Taylor later haggled with staff over allowing Lerner to give a private deposition instead of a public hearing, according to emails released by Issa's staff.

Those talks ultimately failed to strike a deal, leading to her appearance Wednesday before Issa’s panel.

Taylor on Wednesday accused accused congressional Republicans of whipping up public anger against Lerner for their own political benefit. He said Issa brought her back to his committee only to “vilify her.”

“The objective seems clear to keep this controversy white hot throughout the next election cycle, and pander to anyone who is willing to believe that the IRS was engaged in a conspiracy to suppress conservative groups,” Taylor said.

Taylor also read off two of what he called a half dozen death threats against his client and her family — including one that warned her husband that “fortunately God will not allow the wicked witch to retire with eternal benefits.” The FBI is investigating those threats, he added.

“She would be most pleased never to hear about this anymore,” Taylor said. 

The hearing was technically a continuation of Lerner’s first appearance before the panel 10 months ago. There, Lerner professed her innocence before refusing to answer questions from lawmakers, citing her Fifth Amendment rights.

That led lawmakers to cry foul, arguing that Lerner waived those rights when she made her opening statement.

The committee voted down party lines in June that Lerner did in fact waive those rights, and Republicans reserved the right to summon her back to answer questions.

Lerner took center stage in the targeting controversy after she publicly apologized for improper conduct at a tax conference. She retired from the IRS in September, just before an agency was set to recommend she be fired.

Republicans have depicted Lerner as the center figure of a targeting scandal, where Tea Party groups were subjected to added scrutiny in an effort to squash their political efforts.

Democrats have also been critical of Lerner, but maintained that the IRS targeting was not limited to conservative groups and that Republicans have found no political motivation behind the targeting, even after months of investigating.

— This story was last updated at 2:34 p.m.

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