IRS's Lerner pleads Fifth, insists she's done nothing wrong

IRS official Lois Lerner said she had not done anything wrong at a tense House hearing Wednesday but still invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations," Lerner, the head of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups that targeted conservative groups, said before the House Oversight Committee.

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Lerner then said she was following her counsel's advice not to testify.

"I know that some people will assume that I have done something wrong," she said. "I have not."

Through her lawyer, Lerner had given the committee a head’s up that she planned to take the Fifth.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked that she reconsider, but she declined.

Issa then tried to dismiss Lerner, but Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyTrump is right about one thing Benghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE (R-S.C.), himself a former prosecutor, said that Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment rights via her opening statement. Issa eventually did dismiss the IRS official, but said she could be recalled.

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Issa and other top panel members had said that Lerner, the official at the middle of the uproar over the agency’s targeting of conservative groups, had misled them on four separate occasions in 2012 about the agency’s targeting of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status – months before a Treasury audit detailed that extra scrutiny.

William Taylor, Lerner’s lawyer, stressed in that letter that Lerner had committed no crime, but that the Fifth Amendment was also in place to protect innocent individuals.

Lerner’s invoking of the Fifth sparked some early fireworks in what is now the third congressional hearing to look into the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups. Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, is also appearing before the panel, marking the first time a senior department official has been called to testify on the matter.

In his testimony, Wolin stressed – as has his boss, Treasury Secretary Jack LewJack LewDems hail Dodd-Frank reforms on law's anniversary Panic prompted ObamaCare lawlessness GE Capital and the coyote’s leg MORE – that the findings in the inspector general’s report were “absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable.”

But Wolin also said there was “no indication” that Treasury had any role in the targeting, and that the inspector general, Russell George, informed the department in June 2012 – after George’s report said the targeting ended.

“It is important in this context to make clear that Treasury’s longstanding practice – spanning Republican and Democratic administrations – is not to involve itself in the details of the IRS’s administration and enforcement of the nation’s tax laws,” Wolin said.

Treasury and White House officials have stressed that they were involved in discussions about how the IRS would disclose the targeting, but only found out about the details well after the fact.

But Issa and other Republicans remained far from sure at Wednesday’s hearing, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) linking the administration’s handling of the IRS controversy to the aftermath of last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Issa, meanwhile, noted that his panel had asked for the inspector general to look into the matter in 2012, saying “we knew then that there was smoke.”

The California Republican also noted that an IRS internal investigation had found similar targeting in the election year of 2012, well before the inspector general’s report, but also said that extra scrutiny was bigger than any one election.

He also criticized George, who is also testifying Wednesday, for waiting to inform lawmakers about his findings.

“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” Issa said. “It wouldn’t matter one bit if a different group was targeted.”

On the Democratic side, the panel’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said he hoped the hearing wouldn’t descend into a partisan sideshow, and said he respected Lerner’s decision to take the Fifth – even as he said he thought she could shed some light on what happened at the agency.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) sounded an angrier note, suggesting that IRS officials had not been forthcoming enough and raising the specter of a special counsel if more answers weren’t on the way.

“There will be hell to pay if that’s the route we choose to go down,” Lynch said.