Lois Lerner, the former IRS official whose office gave improper scrutiny to tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status, will not be charged with contempt of Congress.
Outgoing U.S. Attorney Ron Machen disclosed the Justice Department's decision in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner dated March 31. Machen is resigning Wednesday as the top federal prosecutor in Washington.
The decision comes 11 months after the House of Representatives voted to hold Lerner in contempt.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee that has been also investigating the IRS, issued the following in response to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision to not proceed with a criminal contempt prosecution of Lerner:
"Today’s announcement is disappointing and exhibits a disregard for the rule of law. Mr. Machen attempted to absolve Ms. Lerner of her actions by substituting his judgment for that of the full House of Representatives. It is unclear whether the Administration directed Mr. Machen not to prosecute Lois Lerner, or whether he was motivated by an ideological kinship with IRS’s leadership.
"The Committee will continue to pursue its ongoing investigation into the targeting of American citizens based on their political beliefs. Our goal is to ensure that the people responsible, including Lois Lerner, are held accountable, and that appropriate reforms and safeguards are put into place at the IRS to guarantee that the rights of Americans are not trampled on again by overzealous bureaucrats with political agendas."
The House's allegations stem from a May 2013 committee hearing in which Lerner gave a statement proclaiming her innocence and then refused to answer questions, citing her constitutional right not to incriminate herself. House Republicans said she had waived her right to remain silent.
"Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment privilege by making general claims of innocence," Machen's office said, explaining his decision not to take the case to a grand jury. "The Constitution would provide Ms. Lerner with an absolute defense if she were prosecuted for contempt."
Also in response to the decision, Rep. Darrell Issa of California said in a statement:
"A lack of accountability for wrongdoing by public officials has become a hallmark of this Administration and specifically of the Holder Justice Department ... Unfortunately, though it is more of the same behavior we have come to anticipate, it is no less disgraceful."
Until May 2013, Lerner worked for the Internal Revenue Service, overseeing nonprofit groups and the employees who decide whether groups seeking non-profit status are too involved in politics to qualify for a tax exemption.
Her employees gave extra attention to tea party groups and others aligned with Republicans, delaying their applications and asking them what an inspector general said were inappropriate questions.
Lerner's attorney, William Taylor, said in an emailed statement, "We are gratified but not surprised by today's news."
"Anyone who takes a serious and impartial look at this issue would conclude that Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights," Taylor said.
Lerner revealed what the agency had done in response to a planted question at a tax conference.
Lerner was suspended, and retired later that year. Congressional and criminal investigations into the agency's actions continue. Machen's letter refers only to the possible contempt case, not other potential charges against Lerner or other IRS officials.
The letter was first reported by Politico.
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