A House committee voted Thursday to recommend that the full House of Representatives hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about her role in the scrutiny of tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status.
“This is not an action I take lightly,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, at the start of Thursday’s hearing. However, “we need Ms. Lerner’s testimony to complete our oversight work to bring truth to the American people.”
The House will need to vote on the issue before Lerner can be officially held in contempt.
Lerner is under investigation by two House committees for allegedly stalling the tax-exempt application process for several conservative groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee urged the Department of Justice to launch a criminal investigation into the controversy, the Monitor reported.
Last May, Lerner refused to answer questions in a House Oversight Committee hearing. House Republicans charged that she had waived her Fifth Amendment right when she offered a voluntary opening statement denying any wrong doing, at the start of the May hearing. She again refused to answer questions at hearings this March.
“We know from her attorney that she sat down for a lengthy no-strings-attached interview with Eric Holder’s Justice Department,” Representative Issa said. He questioned why she would be willing to speak with the Justice Department but not the elected representatives of the American people.
House Democrats see little room for interpretation of how the Fifth Amendment can be used.
“Ms. Lerner has invoked her constitutional right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and that’s it. The end,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) said at the hearing. “I think this committee should change its focus to a more productive area instead of pursuing the destruction of one single woman clinging to her God-given constitutional rights.”
Several House Democrats have likened Thursday’s proceeding to McCarthy-era hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, which accused American citizens of being Communist subversives.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland testified that although he, too, had hoped to hear Lerner’s testimony, he did not approve of the committee’s attempt to strip the Fifth Amendment rights of an American citizen.
“Today I do not direct my comments to my fellow committee members,” he said. “Instead, my statement is directed to the generations of Americans yet unborn who will read about his vote in their history books long after I am dead.”
House Republicans argued that Lerner’s selective use of the Fifth Amendment – first asserting “under-oath, wide-ranging claims of innocence,” according to Issa, then answering some questions but refusing others after pleading the Fifth – effectively waived that right.
Rep. John Duncan (R) of Tennessee stated that the Lerner’s questionable employment of the Fifth Amendment makes a mockery of the American justice system.
The Associated Press material was used in this report.