April 10 (Bloomberg) -- 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 has done nothing wrong and didn’t waive her rights, her attorney, William Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP in Washington, said in a statement today.
“The majority proceeds without regard to the harm it inflicts oninnocent people, to the facts, and to fundamental constitutional rights,” Taylor said.
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 U.S. tax code.
According to the law, those groups must be organized exclusively to promote social welfare. IRS regulations say 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.
Democrats said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp could have taken his concerns directly to prosecutors without the rare step of going public.
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 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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