Republicans and tea party groups on Wednesday praised the House vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify twice about the agency's singling out of conservative groups.
It was a strong step toward bringing accountability to the embattled agency, they said.
"Lois Lerner is at the epicenter of this entire scandal, and we need Lois Lerner and the administration to come clean and tell the truth," Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots, told Newsmax. "It just shows how deep the abuse of power is — and that the IRS thinks they can get away with this."
Martin, who said she was in the chamber as the House voted, said the Tea Party Patriots got their tax-exempt status in February — a day before she was to testify on Capitol Hill about the scandal. The group filed for the status in December 2010.
Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer who represented the Tea Party Patriots before the IRS, said that "everybody's been waiting for some action to be taken."
"The American people need to know that there is an effort and that there are some people in Washington who want to hold the IRS and people like Lois Lerner responsible and accountable for the damage they did," she told Newsmax.
The Republican-controlled House voted 231-187 to hold Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify twice before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the scandal.
The House vote comes just three days before the anniversary of the day Lerner first disclosed the agency's targeting.
Every GOP House member
supported the contempt resolution. They were joined by six Democrats: Ron Barber of Arizona, John Barrow of Georgia, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Patrick Murphy of Florida, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
The vote sends the matter to Ronald Machen, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Under federal law, Machen has a "duty" to bring the case before a grand jury. Machen was appointed by President Barack Obama.
"We will carefully review the report from the speaker of the House and take whatever action is appropriate," Machen's office said.
A report by the Congressional Research Service says that if Lerner is tried and convicted for the misdemeanor offense, she could face a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The House also could arrest Lerner and put her in prison until she complies with the subpoena or until the end of this Congress' session.
The Justice Department has been conducting its own investigation into the IRS scandal.
In addition, the House voted 250-168 to call on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS. All Republicans voted in favor, and they were joined by 26 Democrats.
Lerner, who headed the IRS division that screened applications for tax-exempt status by nonprofits groups, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights twice, last May and again in March, when the oversight panel questioned her about the scandal.
A Treasury Department inspector general found that her department singled out tea party, conservative, and religious groups for specialized screening that often involved unusual delays and detailed requests for information. The Oversight Committee's report found that 298 groups had been targeted.
But in the May hearing, Lerner denied wrongdoing before refusing to answer any questions, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. The committee voted 22-17 the next month that she had waived her Fifth Amendment rights by making the statement before declining to testify.
"The IRS is an organization that we do not have confidence in now as Americans," Rep. Darrell Issa, the oversight panel's chairman, said on the House floor before Wednesday's vote.
"We need to re-establish that — and part of it is understanding how and why a high-ranking person at the IRS so blatantly abused conservative groups that were adverse to the president.
"There's no doubt," Issa added. "But that should not be the basis for which you get scrutinized, audited or abused. And yet, it clearly was."
The screening started in 2010 and continued to just before the presidential election in 2012. The groups targeted included
True the Vote, a Houston voter-rights group also represented by Mitchell, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit political group advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Lerner retired in September after being put on administrative leave because of the scandal.
"Our system of government relies on the sacred trust the American people place in the transparency and accountability of its institutions," House Speaker John Boehner said. "It's time for Lois Lerner to account for her actions — and if she won't, then the full force of the law should be brought to bear."
South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, whom Boehner named to head a select committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, noted that Lerner "made 17 separate factual assertions when she came before the Oversight Committee" at the May hearing. "She testified she had broken no laws and done nothing wrong."
"That is a lot of talking for someone who wants to remain silent," Gowdy said. "You don't get to tell your side of the story and then refuse to answer the cross-examination.
"That is not how our system works, and no one should be above the law," Gowdy said.
"This is the next step," Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said. "It will preserve the sanctity and power of this body – whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge for anyone who attempts to skirt justice and provide truth."
Other conservative and religious groups were just as supportive of the House's action.
K. Allan Blume, editor and president of The Biblical Recorder
, which was audited by the IRS last May, called it "long overdue."
The 180-year-old newspaper, owned by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, was last audited about 15 years ago, Blume said. In 2012, The Recorder interviewed Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathay on his support of traditional family values.
"All evidence points to deliberate violations of the law by employees and supervisors in the IRS," Blume told Newsmax. "If the White House or someone at the top of the IRS is not held accountable, Americans have every reason to lose confidence in our government and the laws that bind those who serve us in government."
Sally Wagenmaker, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, said that Lerner "should not be allowed to hide behind her Fifth Amendment privilege because she owes full accountability for her actions and for those of people under her supervision."
Last year, the Chicago-based society represented two pro-life groups — Christian Voices for Life in Texas and Coalition for Life of Iowa — that had been singled out by the IRS. In the latter case, the IRS allegedly demanded that board members relinquish their First Amendment rights in exchange for the tax-exempt status.
"The IRS is allowed to go fishing for speech that should be protected by the First Amendment — and because it's allowed that discretion, it's very problematic," Wagenmaker told Newsmax. Both organizations have since received their tax-exempt status, she said.
"When you're in a position of high power, you owe the American people full accountability."
But despite the House vote, Mitchell and other lawyers told Newsmax that they were not counting on Holder's prosecuting Lerner for rebuffing Congress.
"Unfortunately, we don’t expect the attorney general to move forward with this case," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington. The center represents 41 conservative groups that have sued the IRS in federal court over the special screening.
"Sadly, he has put politics above the enforcement of the law on numerous occasions — and unfortunately that is likely to occur again," he said.
"He is the chief law-enforcement officer in the country, and he is supposed to uphold and enforce the laws," Mitchell told Newsmax of Holder. "That is what the IRS scandal is all about: this administration is just sanctioning the disregard of law.
"The American people are worried about that — and they need to be worried about that," she added. "Our nation is built on the rule of law. When you don't have the rule of law, you have tyranny."
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