IRS’s Lerner Waived Right to Silence, House Panel Votes

A House panel determined that Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner waived her right against self-incrimination by making a statement professing innocence before refusing to answer questions.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 22-17 today. The committee’s action sets up a confrontation with Lerner that may land in federal court if she still refuses to respond to questions about her role in applying tougher scrutiny to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“Lois Lerner is in fact the poster child for thumbing her nose” at Congress, said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican. “Today’s a showdown, really, on who’s in control of the government.”

Committee members in both parties said Lerner has information that’s crucial to the panel’s inquiry into the IRS. They parted over how far they were willing to go to force her to testify.

Lerner appeared before the committee May 22 and invoked her right to avoid incriminating herself under the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Before she did that, Lerner asserted her innocence and said she broke no laws.

“I am very proud of the work that I have done in government,” she said at the time, reading a statement at the oversight committee hearing. “I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws.”

Representative Darrell Issa, the committee chairman, said Lerner had waived her rights by making the statement and then refusing to answer questions.

‘Entire Range’

“Her statement covers almost the entire range of questions we wanted to ask,” Issa, a California Republican, said today.

Issa can now require Lerner to reappear before the committee. If she refuses to testify, he could seek to hold her in contempt, sending the matter to court, said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee.

“We must respect the constitutional rights of every witness who comes before the committee,” said Cummings, who requested a hearing on the legal issues before voting.

Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly said, “We are trampling on the rights of an American citizen, and that trumps everything.”

Lerner, the former director of exempt organizations, was in charge of the IRS office that applied tougher scrutiny to Tea Party groups. She has since been placed on administrative leave.

Still Employed

Without speaking specifically about Lerner, Danny Werfel, the interim leader of the IRS, confirmed yesterday that she is still employed. During a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, he was asked whether anyone involved had been fired.

“Has anyone been fired yet as a procedural matter?” Werfel said. “No. But all of these options are being pursued where appropriate.”

Issa has said Lerner provided false or misleading information to Congress in staff briefings over the past year. The Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation.

Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington, didn’t respond immediately to an e-mailed request for comment.

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