WASHINGTON » House Republicans voted Wednesday to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at a pair of committee hearings about her role in the agency’s tea party controversy.
The House also passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS.
Lois Lerner directed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. A year ago this week, Lerner publicly disclosed that agents had improperly singled out tea party applications for extra, sometimes burdensome scrutiny.
An inspector general’s report blamed poor management but found no evidence of a political conspiracy. Many Republicans in Congress believe otherwise.
"Who’s been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS? No one that I’m aware of," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday. "Who’s gone to jail for violating the law? When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth?"
House Democrats said Wednesday’s voting was little more than an election-year ploy to fire up the GOP base.
"Instead of passing bipartisan legislation to create more jobs, reform immigration, raise the minimum wage or address any number of issues that affect our constituents every single day, House Republicans are spending this entire week trying to manufacture scandals for political purposes," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
"Welcome to witch hunt week," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
The vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress was 231 to 187, with all Republicans voting in favor and all but a few Democrats voting against.
Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions at a pair of hearings by the Oversight Committee. House Republicans say she waived her constitutional right by making an opening statement in which she proclaimed her innocence.
The matter now goes to Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Federal law says Machen has a "duty" to bring the matter before a grand jury. But a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said it was unclear whether the duty is mandatory or discretionary. Machen was appointed to his job by President Barack Obama.
"We will carefully review the report from the speaker of the House and take whatever action is appropriate," Machen’s office said in a statement.
The vote calling on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel was 250 to 168, with all Republicans voting in favor and most Democrats voting against.
Attorney General Eric Holder has denied previous requests to appoint a special counsel, saying it was unwarranted.
Three congressional committees and the Justice Department have spent much of the past year investigating the IRS over its handling of applications for tax-exempt status.
So far, the congressional investigations have revealed that IRS officials in Washington were more involved in handling the applications than the agency initially acknowledged.
However, the investigations have not publicly established that anyone outside the IRS knew about the targeting or directed it.
Cummings released a report this week saying House Oversight Committee investigators have interviewed 39 witnesses, and found no involvement by the White House and no political conspiracy by IRS officials. Instead, many IRS witnesses said they lacked clear guidance from management on how to handle tea party applications, the report said.
"Who told Lois Lerner to target conservative Americans?" Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., said at a news conference sponsored by several tea party groups. "That’s what we don’t know. That’s what we need to know."
Lerner sat for a lengthy interview with Justice Department investigators, said her lawyer, William W. Taylor III. The interview was done "without conditions," he said.
Lerner wouldn’t answer questions before the Oversight Committee because, Taylor said, committee Republicans were only looking to vilify her in front of TV cameras.
"It was clear that the majority would conduct the hearing without any sense of decorum or fairness," Taylor told reporters in March.
On Wednesday, Taylor said in a statement: "Today’s vote has nothing to do with the facts or the law. Its only purpose is to keep the baseless IRS ‘conspiracy’ alive through the midterm elections."
"Ms. Lerner has not committed contempt of Congress. She did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence," Taylor added.
On May 10, 2013, Lerner was speaking at a Washington law conference when she made the agency’s first public acknowledgment of the tea party controversy. At the time, Lerner publicly apologized on behalf of the agency.
Most of the groups were applying for tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations. Agents were scrutinizing the applications to measure how much the groups were involved in politics.
IRS regulations say social welfare groups may engage in electoral politics, but it may not be their primary mission.
About two weeks after Lerner’s public revelation, she was subpoenaed to appear at a House Oversight Committee hearing. Lerner read an opening statement, saying she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and never lied to Congress. Then she refused to answer lawmakers’ further questions, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
The next day Lerner was placed on paid leave. She retired from the IRS last fall, ending a 34-year career in the federal government, including work at the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission.
The Oversight Committee later ruled in a party-line vote that Lerner forfeited her constitutional right not to testify by making an opening statement. All Republicans voted in favor while all Democrats voted against.
Committee Democrats have compiled a list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., countered with a memo from the House general counsel’s office saying there is a legal foundation for holding Lerner in contempt.