House Speaker John Boehner said an IRS official should be held in contempt if she continues to refuse to testify on the agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
Lois Lerner, who retired from the Internal Revenue Service in September amid the inquiry, exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at a hearing today after 10 questions from Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
“She has to testify or she should be held in contempt,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters, adding that he would wait for a report from Issa.
A contempt vote, which may lead to a criminal prosecution, would escalate the scandal that started last year as Republicans questioned whether President Barack Obama’s administration was singling out Tea-Party backed nonprofit groups in deciding whether to grant tax-exempt status.
Issa said he has interviewed almost three-dozen IRS officials, held five committee hearings and issued three subpoenas for documents since starting the investigation.
Tensions over the controversy were evident today as Lerner repeatedly refused to answer Issa’s questions.
“I can see no point in going further,” Issa, of California, said about eight minutes into the hearing. “I have no expectation that Miss Lerner will cooperate with this committee, and therefore we stand adjourned.”
That elicited immediate objections from the committee’s top Democrat, Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, who said he should have been given a right to speak. Issa refused to acknowledge Cummings, and the Democrat’s microphone was turned off.
“I’ve asked for a few minutes to ask a legal question,” Cummings said. “And now you’re turning me off.”
“We’re adjourned,” Issa shot back.
“I don’t care,” Cummings responded. “The fact is that I’m asking a question. I am the ranking member of this committee. And I want to ask a question.”
Cummings’s microphone was turned on briefly, before again being silenced.
“You’re all free to leave,” Issa said, telling Lerner she was “released.”
Cummings continued speaking for about 10 minutes, shouting so he could be heard in the room. Lerner remained seated while he spoke, as Republican members of the committee left.
There was a “supreme irony” that Issa was trying to force Lerner to answer questions, while refusing to let Cummings ask his, said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat on the panel.
After the hearing, Cummings said that the committee’s investigation hasn’t shown any links to the White House or political motivation from the IRS. Obama said in an interview on Fox News last month there had been “bone-headed decisions” at the IRS, yet “not even a smidgen of corruption.”
Issa said he will decide by next week whether his committee will seek to hold Lerner in contempt.
The House voted to hold Attorney General Eric 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.”
Lerner’s appearance today was a continuation from a May hearing, in which she invoked the Fifth Amendment after maintaining that she was innocent of wrongdoing. The committee determined the following month that Lerner waived her right against self-incrimination by making that statement.
Lerner said last year that the IRS gave some Tea Party groups scrutiny solely because of their names, touching off a controversy that led to leadership changes at the tax agency and multiple congressional investigations. Lerner, the former director of exempt organizations at the IRS, ran the section of the IRS charged with policing nonprofit groups, including whether they engaged in too much political activity.
A Treasury inspector general’s report last year found that the IRS had used inappropriate criteria to scrutinize groups, though it found no evidence of politically motivation.
The Justice Department has been conducting a criminal probe in addition to the congressional committee investigations.
The IRS has since proposed new rules for handling social welfare groups engaged in political activity under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.