Topics: House of Representatives

House committee votes top IRS official waived Fifth Amendment and could be called to testify

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A House committee ruled Friday that a former top Internal Revenue Service official who invoked her Fifth Amendment rights in an earlier congressional hearing did so inappropriately and will be called back to the committee to answer questions she refused to address then.

The House Oversight and Goverment Reform Committee voted 22-17 to bring back Lois Lerner, who ran the IRS department overseeing tax exempt groups, and compel her to testify about the IRS' targeting of conservative groups that sought tax-exempt status.

Lerner on May 22 refused to answer committee questions, telling the panel that she was invoking her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, but she invoked those rights after reading a lengthy statement in front of the committee.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Friday that he believed Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights when she made the statement declaring her innocence.

“She made four specific denials,” Issa said. “Those denials are at the core of the committee’s investigation in this matter.”

Democrats argued against recalling Lerner and asked for a second hearing to interview law experts about the matter.

“When we are dealing with people’s rights, we have to make sure that when they vote, they have access to the legal sides of this arguement and there are clearly two sides,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee's top Democrat.

Cummings cited a letter from lawyer Stanley Brand, who served as consel to the House of Representatives from 1976 to 1983, in which Brand writes, “I do not believe Ms. Lerner’s brief introductory profession of innocence, in which she offered no substantive testimony or evidence, constitutes a waiver of her Fifth Amendment rights.”

But Republicans hold the majority on the panel, and many expressed frustration with the IRS, which has been involved in a string of scandals and, in the view of some GOP lawmakers, has been slow to cooperate with House investigators, handing over documents that were heavily redacted and refusing to answer any questions. A second IRS official invoked the Fifth Amendment at a hearing earlier this week about tainted IRS contracts.

“Lois Lerner is in fact the poster child for a federal bureaucrat thumbing her nose at Congress,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla, said before the vote. “And I’m telling you, I’ve absolutely had it with what we’ve seen. The power of this new estate – it’s not in the Constitution that there is a fourth branch that can tell us to go to hell.”

While the House could compel Lerner to tesiify before of the committee, they may also cut a deal with her, lawmakers suggested at the hearing.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, asked Issa if he was willing to discuss the possibility of offering Lerner immunity in exchange for her testimony.

“There are some things that can’t be said in an open hearing,” Issa responded.

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