U.S. Won't Charge Former IRS Official Lois Lerner With Contempt

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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (C) orders ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) microphone turned off after adjourning a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building March 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Issa adjuourned after the witness, former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, exercised her Fifth Amendment right not to speak about the matter during the hearing.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lois Lerner, the former IRS official whose office gave improper scrutiny to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, won’t 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 U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold Lerner in contempt.

The House’s allegations stem from a May 2013 committee hearing in which Lerner read 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 in a statement, 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.”

Until May 2013, Lerner worked for the Internal Revenue Service, overseeing nonprofit groups and the employees who decide whether groups seeking non-profit status were too involved in politics to qualify for a tax exemption.

Tea Party

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.

The decision not to prosecute Lerner “in no way clears her of wrongdoing,” said Representative Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, in a statement. He said lawmakers will continue to investigate and “hold her accountable for any criminal wrongdoing.”

Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said Machen “unilaterally decided to ignore the will of the House of Representatives.”

Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor, said in an e-mailed 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.