A U.S. House committee voted to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about her role in scrutinizing Tea Party groups seeking tax exemptions.
The vote today by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was 21-12, along party lines.
“We represent the people and they deserve an answer,” said Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican.
The action follows yesterday’s vote by the House Ways and Means Committee to ask the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against Lerner. Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the full House would hold Lerner in contempt if she refused to testify.
“The American people deserve the truth about what happened,” Boehner said today.
Republicans on the Oversight committee, including panel Chairman Darrell Issa of California, say Lerner waived her constitutional rights against self-incrimination last year by stating that she had done nothing wrong before refusing to answer questions. Democrats disagreed.
“Trying to rip up the Constitution and run roughshod over the Bill of Rights is not a path to truth,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat. “It is merely political theater.”
If the full House finds Lerner in contempt, the matter would be referred to federal prosecutors.
Lerner, who was suspended and retired last year, was director of tax-exempt organizations at the IRS. She was in charge of an office at the tax agency that oversees nonprofit groups, including politically active ones organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.
According to the law, those groups must be organized exclusively to promote social welfare. IRS regulations say that such groups can’t be primarily political.
Under Lerner’s leadership, the IRS gave Tea Party groups extra scrutiny based solely on their names. Beyond that, Republicans on the Ways and Means panel alleged yesterday that Lerner engaged in an “aggressive and improper pursuit” of Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit political group advised by Republican Karl Rove, who was an aide to President George W. Bush.
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Lerner’s intervention should be investigated by the Justice Department as a crime because she treated Republican-leaning groups unfairly, the committee said in a letter published after a two-hour closed session. Some of the information in the letter had been kept secret under taxpayer-privacy laws.
Lerner has denied wrongdoing and said she committed no crimes. Democrats dismissed the letter as political theater and said Camp could have taken his concerns directly to prosecutors without the rare step of going public.
Crossroads GPS, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, pumped more secret money into the 2012 election than any other group, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political spending.
The nonprofit group spent about $71 million of the $180 million it raised on TV ads and other activities it was required to report to the Federal Election Commission.
It also distributed about $35 million in grants that year, according to its tax forms. The largest grant recipient was Americans for Tax Reform, whose president is Grover Norquist, the tax documents show.
Crossroads applied for nonprofit status in September 2010, telling the IRS that its involvement in politics would be “limited.” Approval or denial of that application would be public. As is allowed under the law, the group operated under 501(c)(4) while its application is pending.
The Ways and Means letter uses Lerner’s e-mails to argue that she circumvented the agency’s procedures to attempt to deny Crossroads tax-exempt status, select them for an audit and interfere in the agency’s appeals process.
According to the documents, the IRS began drafting a letter denying Crossroads tax-exempt status two days before the scrutiny of Tea Party groups became public in May 2013. The documents don’t make it clear if the letter was sent. It was still in draft form on May 30, after Lerner had been suspended, and the IRS has taken no final action on the application.
“The evidence shows that without Lerner’s intervention, neither adverse action would have been taken against Crossroads,” the letter said. “The committee has found no record of Lerner pursuing similarly situated left-leaning groups, despite receiving similar public complaints.”
Crossroads GPS President Steven Law said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that the committee “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.”
Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, said in a statement that keeping the focus on the IRS helps Rove.
“It is about whether he can use tens of millions of secret, corporate dollars to pollute our democracy while claiming to be operating as a tax exempt ‘social welfare’ organization,” Doggett said.
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington, said in a statement yesterday that “the timing of today’s vote is odd. We have not heard from the House Ways and Means Committee. Nor has the committee previously issued a report of its findings.”
Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department will decide whether to prosecute Lerner. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that the investigation “remains a high priority of the department. We will review the letter once we receive it and take it under consideration.”
The House voted to find Holder in contempt in June 2012 after the administration cited executive privilege in refusing to turn over documents to Issa’s committee. The panel was investigating Holder’s role in overseeing a botched attempt to track gun smuggling known as “Fast and Furious.”
The laws Lerner may have violated include one that prohibits false statements, another that prohibits the use of official positions to deprive people of their rights and a U.S. tax code section that limits disclosure of taxpayer information.
The Ways and Means letter said Lerner misled investigators about when she became aware of the scrutiny of Tea Party groups. It cited her use of a private e-mail address to which she sent some taxpayer information. If someone other than Lerner accessed the information, that may be a crime, the letter said.
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