By John D. McKinnon
The House voted Wednesday to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for declining to answer lawmakers’ questions, a move that carries political significance and could set a legal precedent.
The largely party-line vote was 231 to 187, with a handful of Democrats backing the measure.
Republicans said the contempt citation was necessary to help find the truth about what happened in the alleged IRS targeting, starting in early 2010, of tea-party groups seeking nonprofit tax status. Republicans are hoping the matter will go to court, and a judge will require Ms. Lerner to answer their questions about what occurred.
Ms. Lerner headed the division that handled the groups’ applications for tax-exempt status, and helped direct the processing of the cases.
What happens next is unclear. Federal law says that if the House or Senate votes to hold someone in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with a subpoena, the matter will be referred to the local U.S. attorney, a Justice Department official. It is then the duty of the U.S. attorney to bring the matter before a grand jury. But that doesn’t guarantee an indictment. Justice officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
“The only route to the truth is through the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio). “That’s why this resolution is so important.”
The House also approved a separate resolution urging the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor.
In a written statement, Ms. Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor III, said: “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.”
Democrats said GOP lawmakers were seeking to stir their conservative political base, and were running roughshod over Ms. Lerner’s rights in the process. They compared the GOP move to McCarthy-era bullying.
“We are better than that,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.).
Republicans contend that Ms. Lerner’s handling of the cases and that her actions violated the rights of the groups. In one email in early 2011 she wrote that the tea-party matter was “very dangerous,” out of concern that one or more of the groups might successfully challenge IRS restrictions on political spending in court if the IRS denied the applications. Many of the tea-party applications were still pending in May of 2013, when Ms. Lerner publicly apologized for the review, blaming it on underlings in a regional office in Cincinnati.
Republican lawmakers believe Ms. Lerner was motivated by liberal political leanings, noting that she mused in one email about going to work for a tax-exempt organization that is allied with President Barack Obama. They have speculated that administration officials encouraged her to act. They also believe Justice Department officials were trying to coordinate prosecutions with Ms. Lerner, citing newly uncovered emails and other evidence.
Democrats say in response that an exhaustive investigation has uncovered no evidence of any Obama administration participation. On Wednesday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) blamed “ineptness, wrongness, misdirection” by the IRS, but insisted that it hadn’t been politically motivated.
Ms. Lerner so far hasn’t answered congressional questions. Unlike other IRS officials, she twice declined to testify before a House committee, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. GOP lawmakers argue that she waived her privilege by making a statement at the first hearing, professing her innocence.
Some GOP lawmakers argued that a lengthy interview Ms. Lerner gave to the Justice Department, amounted to another waiver of her constitutional right. Democrats disagreed.
At the same time, Republicans believe a Justice Department investigation has been muzzled by higher-ups. It is likely Republicans would seek to make Justice Department inaction a campaign issue, and the issue also could lead to court challenges.
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R., Tex.) predicted the matter would reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and ultimately help Congress reclaim “the power the Constitution gave to this body to get to the truth.”
Write to John D. McKinnon at [email protected]