In an exciting, if unsurprising, hearing this morning before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, former IRS official Lois Lerner once again asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. As part of her assertion, Lerner refused to answer any questions about the IRS targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups. While it is certainly her right to do so—and a reasonable strategy, given the ongoing criminal investigation— Lerner’s use of the Fifth Amendment deprives Congress of its ability to get information from her unless, and until, Congress or the Justice Department grants her immunity from prosecution.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R–CA) convened this morning’s hearing for one important reason: Getting answers from Lerner, the official who was in charge of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS at the time the targeting occurred. Under Lerner’s supervision, the IRS refused to approve the applications of conservative organizations and subjected them to intrusive and unjustified inquiries into their activities, members, and donors.
In her previous appearance before the committee, Lerner had also asserted her Fifth Amendment right, but not before declaring that she had not done anything wrong. Consequently, some analysts believe she may have actually waived her right to assert the Fifth Amendment. Lerner had apparently been called back because Congressman Issa, based on some confusing email exchanges with Lerner’s lawyer, was under the impression that she was going to testify.
Despite Lerner’s silence, this morning’s hearing still had its share of fireworks, as Elijah Cummings (D–MD), the ranking minority Member of the Committee, got into an argument with Rep. Issa over his motion to adjourn the hearing after Lerner refused to answer any questions. Cummings has been running interference for the Obama Administration since the IRS scandal erupted in May of last year, and today was to be no different. Specifically, Cummings wanted to make yet another statement criticizing the investigation. True the Vote, one of the targeted organizations with a lawsuit pending against the IRS, recently filed an ethics complaint against Cummings for his alleged harassment of the organization. At this morning’s hearing, the Congressman could be heard saying that this was a “one sided investigation” and continued to shout after the hearing was adjourned and his microphone was turned off.
What is most interesting about this confrontation is the way in which Lerner has avoided any responsibility for the actions of the IRS. Although Attorney General Eric Holder, in May 2013, announced that the Justice Department was opening an investigation of the IRS ’s targeting of conservative organizations—behavior he denounced as “outrageous and unacceptable”—attorneys representing dozens of these organizations have said that, nine months later, none of their clients have been contacted by investigators.
The Justice Department’s lead lawyer in the investigation is an Obama donor (a potential conflict of interest) who works in the Civil Rights Division, the most politicized division at Justice. These types of public corruption investigations are normally the responsibility of the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division, which is apparently playing second fiddle to the Civil Rights Division. Further, various media sources have reported that leaks from inside the Justice Department indicate no criminal charges will be filed—even though the investigation is supposedly ongoing. After all, regardless of what a serious investigation might actually uncover, President Obama has already declared that there was not a “smidgen of corruption” at the IRS. So why bother asking any more questions?