House Oversight to vote on Lerner contempt charges next week

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House Republicans will begin their efforts to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress next Thursday with a vote in the Oversight Committee.

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Top GOP lawmakers have said for weeks that they wanted to seek contempt charges against Lerner, a central figure in the IRS targeting controversy.

Republicans say that Lerner, who invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination twice before the Oversight Committee, waived her rights by declaring her innocence in an opening statement at a May 2013 hearing.

"Americans expect accountability and want Congress to do all it can to gather relevant evidence about what occurred and who was responsible so that this never happens again,” Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement.

“Ms. Lerner's involvement in wrongdoing and refusal to meet her legal obligations has left the Committee with no alternative but to consider a contempt finding."

Issa had suggested he would quickly move on contempt charges following Lerner’s appearance before the committee in early March, and has said she's the key figure to his investigation.

Lerner was the first IRS official to acknowledge and apologize for the improper scrutiny the agency gave to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt, 501(c)(4) status. 

But Republicans were forced to push back their efforts because of a high-profile spat between Issa and the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), at that hearing, in which Issa quickly ended the proceedings and muted Cummings’s microphone.

Cummings on Thursday chided Issa for publicly discussing the contempt vote before talking to him, and for not reaching a deal to have Lerner testify.

"That was a shame because so many of our members - Republicans and Democrats - wanted to hear from her," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement. "Chairman Issa has demonstrated over and over again that he simply does not want to hear from anyone who disagrees with him or has information that does not fit his political narrative-including witnesses, independent legal experts, and even committee members like myself.”

The contempt charges against Lerner would move to the House floor if, as expected, they clear the Oversight panel. If the full House approves the charges, the U.S. attorney would then be directed to bring the charges before a grand jury.

Still, the GOP’s efforts to hold Lerner in contempt could easily lead to a protracted legal battle. The House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt in 2012, but that case remains mired in federal court.

Democrats have broadly opposed the GOP’s efforts to hold Lerner in contempt, arguing that Issa botched his chance at the March hearing by not explicitly telling the former IRS official she would face contempt charges if she did not answer questions.

Democrats have also accused the GOP of overreaching on its IRS investigations, saying that close to 11 months of inquiries have found no sign of political motivation or White House involvement.

Bill Taylor, Lerner’s attorney, has said that he doesn’t think a federal judge would find that his client waived her Fifth Amendment right.

Taylor and Issa’s staff had negotiated over Lerner potentially testifying before the Oversight panel, but those talks broke down, and Taylor now says that Republicans are just seeking to vilify Lerner.

--This report was updated at 2:49 p.m.