Ways and Means to consider referring Lerner for charges

Ways and Means to consider referring Lerner for charges
© Getty Images

The House Ways and Means Committee will decide Wednesday whether to refer former IRS official Lois Lerner to the Justice Department for potential criminal charges.

In an advisory to panel members, Ways and Means staff said the committee would meet to seek one or more charges against Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the controversy’s nearly yearlong targeting controversy.

The debate over whether to refer Lerner’s case to Attorney General Eric Holder will occur mostly behind closed doors, because the evidence gathered as part of the committee’s investigation contains confidential taxpayer information, a GOP aide said Monday.

But if, as expected, the committee decides to move ahead, the referral to Holder and the Justice Department will be made public, the aide added.

The Justice Department would not be forced to prosecute Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the agency’s nearly yearlong targeting controversy, even if the House tax panel approved the referral, as expected. The department opened a criminal investigation shortly after the controversy broke, but reports in recent months suggested the inquiry wouldn't produce any charges.

But the move would cause yet another potential legal headache for Lerner, and give rank-and-file Republicans another chance to weigh in on the IRS in a midterm election year.

The House Oversight Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), could vote as soon as Thursday to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress, an idea supported by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other top GOP lawmakers.

Lerner has twice refused to answer public questions before the Oversight panel, which has also ruled that she waived her Fifth Amendment rights by defending herself in an opening statement in a hearing last May.

Republicans have said that Lerner, the official who first apologized for the improper scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, is the key to their investigations and have said their inquiries will have holes without her testimony.

Democrats have said that the increasing GOP pressure on Lerner is more about politics than investigating what happened at the IRS.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, told reporters after a Capitol Hill appearance that he believed Ways and Means was “doing what they think is right, and I’m sure the Department of Justice and others will do what they think is right.”
But Koskinen also sounded exasperated that the roughly half a dozen investigations are continuing with no end in sight. The IRS commissioner has previously said that no one wants to put the tax-exempt controversy behind the agency more quickly than him.
“My goal has been to give as much information and support as we can to the investigators with the hope that somebody in the near future will actually write a report, so we’ll all know what their view of the facts are and their recommendations,” Koskinen said after testifying at a House Appropriations subcommittee.
“I’ve made it clear whatever the reports show the facts are and what needs to be done, we’ll take a hard look at.”

Earlier on Monday, the Oversight panel also released a report maintaining that the IRS did single out Tea Party groups for tougher scrutiny, despite Democratic assertions that the agency scrutinized both liberal and conservative organizations.

Issa’s committee has also insisted that Lerner misled Congress about her role in the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups, and that the former head of a division dealing with tax-exempt organizations directed that scrutiny while trying to maintain a veneer of impartiality.
Lerner’s attorney, Bill Taylor, has said that Issa is merely seeking to vilify his client. Taylor and Issa’s staff had discussed ways for Lerner to testify in recent weeks, but those talks broke down shortly before an early March hearing.