A House committee is voting on whether to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at a pair of hearings.
The official, Lois Lerner, previously headed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. Last May, after providing an opening statement, she refused to answer questions at a House Oversight Committee hearing about IRS agents improperly singling out tea party applications for extra scrutiny. She again refused to answer questions at hearing in March.
The Oversight Committee was scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to hold her in contempt. Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Lerner had effectively waived her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions by providing an opening statement at the May hearing.
Lerner’s lawyer and Democrats on the committee disagree. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, has compiled a growing list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Some say Lerner did not waive her rights while others say even if she did, Issa didn’t follow proper procedures for holding her in contempt.
Issa countered with a memo from the House general counsel’s office that says he followed proper procedures.
Lerner has emerged as a central figure in investigations by two congressional committees. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to refer her to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
Ways and Means investigators say they have uncovered evidence that Lerner may have violated the constitutional rights of conservative groups, misled investigators and risked exposing confidential taxpayer information.
Lerner’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said she has committed no crimes.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects the full House to vote to hold Lerner in contempt, unless she agrees to testify.
“If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” Boehner said Wednesday. “And we will continue to shine the light on the administration’s abusive actions and use every tool at our disposal to expose the truth and ensure the American people get the answers they deserve.”
Lerner is an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001. She retired last fall, ending a 34-year career in federal government, which included work at the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.
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