IRS official to plead the Fifth before House Oversight Committee

Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official at the eye of the storm over the improper scrutiny of conservative groups, will refuse to answer questions from the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

Through her attorney, Lerner stated her intention to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights after being called to testify.

“She has not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation, but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course,” her attorney, William W. Taylor III wrote in a letter to Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Her refusal to testify is the latest roadblock slowing lawmakers’ efforts to get to the bottom of the targeting of Tea Party groups.

Lerner, the head of the IRS’s exempt organizations division, was clearly going to be pressed by lawmakers about the honesty — or otherwise — of her previous responses before Congress on whether the IRS had targeted Tea Party groups.

She has already apologized for the imbroglio, but the Justice Department has launched a criminal probe into the matter. Lawmakers have repeatedly contended that IRS officials, including Lerner, misled Congress about its existence.

“We’re going to review with her what road she led us down previously,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), before news broke of Lerner’s refusal. “To be able to go back and review with her what she said previously versus what she might say on Wednesday, that’s going to make for an interesting exercise in contradictions.”

Both parties have criticized Lerner for being less than forthcoming with Congress. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) has called for her resignation, after she did not disclose the targeting in response to a direct question from the lawmaker at a hearing — two days before she publicly apologized for it.

A spokesman for the Oversight Committee noted that Issa has issued a subpoena to compel Lerner to appear before his panel Wednesday, even if she refuses to answer questions.

“The committee has a Constitutional obligation to conduct oversight,” said spokesman Ali Ahmad. “Chairman Issa remains hopeful that she will ultimately decide to testify [Wednesday].”

But if Lerner stonewalls Congress, it would exacerbate the frustration lawmakers feel about being stymied by tax collectors.

Wednesday’s hearing will mark the third in less than a week in which lawmakers have probed current and former IRS officials, but members are still searching for answers to a few critical questions. How did the IRS come to adopt the practice of singling out Tea Party groups for added scrutiny? What was the motivation behind filtering out the groups: partisan politics or poor judgment?

Current and former IRS officials at the top of the agency have so far been unable or unwilling to answer those questions, and lawmakers on the Oversight Committee had hoped Lerner could finally shed light on the matter.

After all, she was the IRS official who first thrust the matter into the spotlight, apologizing at a legal conference a week and a half ago for the improper targeting. And the report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) on the practice found that she directed IRS employees to stop using explicit Tea Party criteria in identifying tax-exempt applications for further scrutiny, back in June 2011.

“[Wednesday] will be the first time that she’s present,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs Oversight’s Investigatory subcommittee. “That’s one thing I think is unique about our hearing. We’ll see what she says.”

“She would probably be able to answer the kind of questions I want to have answered,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel. “I’m interested in knowing what the intent was.”

But Cummings also appeared to have an inkling that he might not get anything new from Lerner, shortly before news broke that the IRS official would decline to answer questions.

Cummings has joined other Democrats in calling for Lerner to lose her job.

“She might. She may very well,” Cummings said, when asked directly if Lerner would take the Fifth. “We’ll see when she comes.” So far, members have not been able to nail down who exactly was behind the policy or its ultimate goal. The TIGTA report did not find any evidence of political pressure to target Tea Party groups, but Republicans have refused to believe the decision could have had its genesis among low-level IRS employees.

Meanwhile, current and former top IRS officials have expressed their outrage at the practice while distancing themselves from it. Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that he only learned the full extent of the targeting after he left the agency at the end of 2012. And Steven Miller, the former acting IRS commissioner who resigned from the role when the scandal broke, has insisted before two separate panels that he never lied to Congress about it.

At the close of Tuesday’s hearing, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) called the officials’ answers “unsatisfying,” and vowed further digging was to come.

“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of this yet. And that’s my intent, to get to the bottom of this,” Baucus told reporters after the hearing. “What personnel did or did not know? Who really made these decisions? What were the instructions from people higher up? A lot of unanswered questions.”

Lerner is set to appear Wednesday alongside Shulman, as well as Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin and Inspector General for Tax Administation J. Russell George. 

Wolin will be the first Treasury official to testify directly on the scandal. He was first told the IG was conducting an audit around June of last year.

— Published at 3:43 p.m. and updated at 8:30 p.m.