The Justice Department should consider criminal prosecution of former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner for her role in controversy over the tax agency’s alleged targeting of tea party groups, a Republican-controlled House committee urged Wednesday.
In a 23-to-14 vote along party lines, the House Ways and Means Committee referred the issue to the Justice Department. Republican lawmakers say Ms. Lerner could potentially be prosecuted for singling out conservative groups for scrutiny, compromising confidential taxpayer information, and misleading investigators.
In a hot-button example, the Republicans alleged that Lerner went on the attack against Crossroads GPS, an influential conservative group founded by political strategist Karl Rove, "while turning a blind eye to similarly-organized liberal groups, like Priorities USA."
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R) of Michigan released a timeline based on Lerner e-mails. According to the chronology, the IRS leaked Crossroads GPS's pending application for tax-extempt status to the investigative journalism website ProPublica, a step the timeline describes as "a violation of federal law."
Mr. Camp's timeline also describes Lerner pressuring subordinates to audit Crossroads GPS and saying in a January 2013 e-mail that all IRS moves regarding Crossroads should be coordinated in Washington rather than in IRS field offices.
The Wednesday vote turns up the heat in a year-old partisan battle.
Republicans paint the actions that occurred under Lerner’s oversight as a scandal of political partisanship, which the Obama administration has failed to pursue. Democrats say that view blows the tea party controversy out of proportion, and that Republicans’ real focus is on scoring political points in an election year.
A separate committee, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
She has refused to testify to the committee, citing Fifth Amendment rights. Republicans say she waived those rights against self-incrimination by giving “a voluntary opening statement denying any wrongdoing,” before her refusal to answer questions at a 2013 hearing.
The controversy surrounding the IRS centers around the agency’s role in determining which groups do or don’t qualify for tax-exempt status.
“Lois Lerner’s testimony is critical to the Committee’s investigation,” a new report by the oversight panel states. “Without her testimony, the full extent of the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party applications cannot be known, and the Committee will be unable to fully complete its work.”
The report says that Lerner, as director of IRS units overseeing exempt organizations, had “unique, first-hand knowledge of how, and why, the IRS scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status from certain conservative-aligned groups.”
In general, organizations that are granted tax-exempt status are supposed to shy away from direct involvement in political campaigns. But some groups can be eligible for the exemption while using sizable chunks of their resources on behalf of political candidates.
Last year, a Treasury inspector general for tax administration investigated questions that Republicans had raised regarding the treatment of tea party groups by the IRS during the 2012 campaign cycle. The report by Inspector General Russell George concluded that the agency unfairly singled out conservative groups with “tea party” in their name for special scrutiny of their applications. It also said the groups faced processing delays and unnecessary requests for information.
President Obama called the actions “inexcusable.” Lerner and an acting commissioner of the IRS departed, and the agency has pledged new vigilance against politically biased practices.
Many Democrats say the continued investigations by Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the oversight committee, aren’t needed.
Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan said this week that the probe has been tinged with partisan politics from its early days. He cited a year-long “failed effort to prove White House involvement, pursuit of an enemies list, or targeting of only conservative groups.”
Mr. Levin said the Justice Department is already “investigating the entire matter to determine whether there should be criminal charges. The Justice Department has access to all of the same documents as we do. They have the ability to conduct interviews of all involved and to compel testimony.”
To Republicans, Attorney General Eric Holder isn’t exactly viewed as an impartial arbiter, however.
And a bit of new fuel was added Wednesday when an independent federal watchdog, the Office of Special Counsel, reported on several investigations in which IRS employees were alleged to have engaged in pro-Obama or pro-Democratic political activity while on the job.
One IRS specialist in Kentucky “will serve a 14-day suspension for promoting her partisan political views to a taxpayer she was assisting during the 2012 Presidential election season,” the group’s report said.
The report also said a IRS employees in the Dallas Taxpayer Assistance Center have been given “cautionary guidance … that they cannot wear or display any items advocating for or against a political party, partisan political group, or partisan candidate in the workplace.”