The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted Thursday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for failing to testify about the IRS scandal involving the targeting of conservative, pro-life and evangelical groups.
The vote, 21 to 12, was along party lines. The contempt charge will next go to the full House for a vote.
"Our investigation has found that former IRS Exempt Organizations division Director Lois Lerner played a central role in the targeting scandal and then failed to meet her legal obligations to answer questions after she waived her right not to testify. In demanding answers and holding a powerful government official accountable for her failure to meet her legal obligations, this Committee did its job. If the House takes up and passes the resolution, the matter will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which statute requires he take to a grand jury," Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said.
Lerner, who headed the tax exempt organizations office for the IRS, was charged with contempt for refusing to testify. The first time she appeared before the committee she made a statement, declaring she did "nothing wrong," before invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Making a statement before declaring the Fifth was highly unusual. Legal scholars hold different views about whether Lerner effectively waived her Fifth Amendment rights by first declaring her innocence.
A letter presented by the Democrats on the committee and signed by 25 legal experts argued that Lerner should not be held in contempt because she was not fully informed by the committee of the consequences of making a statement before invoking the Fifth. The House Office of General Counsel concluded, on the other hand, that she was fully informed and that contempt charges could be pursued.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, praised the committee's vote. ACLJ represents 41 conservative organizations that have sued the IRS over the scandal.
"From the very beginning, she has ignored a Congressional subpoena – refused to answer questions on two occasions by pleading the Fifth Amendment. We believe — as many others do — that she waived her constitutional right to remain silent because she invoked it after she publicly proclaimed her innocence. Lerner has misled the American people and Congress from the very start. Contempt is justified and the appropriate sanction in this case," he said in a statement.
The contempt vote comes a day after another House committee, Ways and Means, sent a 14-page letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Justice Department to investigate criminal charges against Lerner.
The letter contains new allegations against Lerner based upon email communications received by the committee. In particular, it shows emails in which Lerner is aggressively pursuing Crossroads GPS, a conservative superPAC founded by Karl Rove, former strategist for President George W. Bush. Based upon those communications, the letter accuses Lerner of prejudging the Crossroads GPS application for tax-exempt status and pursuing an audit and denial of the application.
Also this week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released email communications between officials at the IRS, including Lerner, and a staffer from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) office. The emails suggest that Cummings wanted the IRS to apply greater scrutiny to one conservative group, True the Vote. The emails also show that the IRS shared True the Vote's tax documents with Cummings.
At a previous hearing, Cummings denied that his office suggested to the IRS that greater scrutiny should be applied to True the Vote, saying the accusation is "absolutely incorrect and not true."