WASHINGTON — A congressional committee asked the Department of Justice on Wednesday to prosecute a top tax official who’s alleged to have improperly targeted conservative political organizations.
On a party-line vote, the House Ways and Means Committee asked the Justice Department to review evidence uncovered by lawmakers to determine whether Lois Lerner, the former head of the exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service, violated criminal statutes.
The committee’s Republican majority alleged that Lerner had influenced lower-level IRS officials to deny requests from conservative groups for tax-exempt status. The committee also charged that Lerner had impeded official probes with misleading statements to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and that she may have disclosed confidential taxpayer information by using her personal email to conduct official business.
“Almost a year ago we learned that the IRS subjected certain groups to extra scrutiny because of their political beliefs. At the time, Lois Lerner shamefully attempted to blame the mistreatment on low-level employees in Cincinnati,” said Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. “The investigation to date has demonstrated that the targeting did not happen until IRS headquarters in D.C. intervened.”
The conservative group Tea Party Patriots applauded Camp’s vote.
“Lois Lerner owes it to the American people to tell the truth about what she and the IRS did to strip citizens of their First Amendment rights,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the group.
William W. Taylor III, Lerner’s attorney, fired back quickly after Wednesday’s vote.
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress,” Taylor said in a statement to McClatchy. “She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption. Those are the facts.”
Taylor also criticized Camp.
“We have not heard from the House Ways and Means Committee. Nor has the committee previously issued a report of its findings,” he said. “The committee’s referral affects nothing. The Department of Justice is already investigating the IRS. This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain.”
Lerner was at the center of controversy last year when she revealed, in an answer to a planted question at a conference, that the IRS had engaged in inappropriate scrutiny of applications for tax-exempt status by conservative groups, particularly those with “Tea Party” in their names. The ham-handed way in which the revelation was handled resulted in President Barack Obama firing then-acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller.
Lerner later provided a long, defensive opening statement at a hearing last year by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, then refused to take questions from lawmakers, citing her Fifth Amendment rights. She was called back last month and, with Taylor at her side, cited those rights again.
The DOJ on Wednesday wouldn’t confirm reports that it’s already interviewed Lerner, and it said that its own probe continued.
“As the department has repeatedly confirmed, there is already an active, ongoing investigation into the IRS’s handling of applications by tax-exempt organizations,” said Emily Pierce, a spokeswoman. “It remains a high priority of the department. We will review the letter once we receive it and take it under consideration.”
The chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, California Republican Darrell Issa, said last year that by giving her opening statement and reviewing some documents presented by the committee, Lerner had waived immunity from testifying. Issa’s committee is expected to meet Thursday to discuss contempt proceedings against Lerner, who retired from the IRS last fall.
Issa’s committee issued a voluminous staff report March 11, releasing numerous private emails from Lerner and selective slices of interviews with IRS officials conducted by committee investigators. Full transcripts of those interviews were not released.
Republicans say the emails show Lerner, a Democrat and former Federal Election Commission official, targeting conservatives. The emails, reviewed by McClatchy, generally show Lerner most concerned about a Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for unlimited corporate donations to move to political campaigns and how they might improperly flow through tax-exempt organizations.
They also showed her sending around news reports about donors avoiding disclosure by giving to a type of tax-exempt organization that’s allowed to spend on campaigns as long as its primary function is promoting the vague term “social welfare.” Lerner expected the matter to go to the courts, and she pushed in emails for cases that might speed a legal challenge. Some of the Lerner emails reference Crossroads GPS, the large operation founded by former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove.
“The House Ways and Means Committee investigation confirms that there was an organized high-level effort within the IRS to subvert the agency’s own standards and procedures in order to harass law-abiding conservative advocacy groups like Crossroads GPS,” Steven Law, the group’s president, said in a statement.