The powerful House tax writing panel on Wednesday voted to formally request the Department of Justice to consider criminal charges against Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of a targeting scandal.
According to a statement issued by the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel believes Lerner may have violated the law by unfairly targeting conservative groups, including the influential Crossroads GPS, misleading investigators who were looking into the matter and illegally exposing private taxpayer information.
“Lerner used her position to improperly influence agency action against only conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law,” a statement from Ways and Means says. “She showed extreme bias and prejudice towards conservative groups.”
Ways and Means, in their letter to the Justice Department, lays out a timeline that attempts to show Lerner was motivated to target conservative groups.
The timeline includes a January 2013 email in which Lerner asks her subordinates why Crossroads had not been selected for an audit.
The conservative group had been a top spender on advertising aimed at defeating Democratic candidates.
“[Lerner] subsequently sent an email to the Director of Examinations in Dallas, TX, Nanette Downing, demanding to know why the group had not yet been audited,” The Ways and Means report found. “In her email to Downing, she notes that she wants all moves regarding Crossroads to be coordinated in DC.”
The panel's referral to Justice comes a day ahead of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee vote on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before Congress about the targeting, which was exposed last year in a Treasury Department audit.
Lerner was serving as head of the tax exempt division, working out of Washington, D.C.
Republicans believe she helped coordinate the targeting of conservative groups and Tea Party organizations, but she has denied any sinister motives. Last May, Lerner defended herself in a lengthy statement delivered before the Oversight panel and then refused to testify. Republicans believe her opening remarks waived her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and that is the basis of their contempt vote on Thursday.
Democrats have voiced strenuous opposition to the GOP pursuit of Lerner and say she has been unfairly targeted for political purposes. Democrats believe Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., mishandled the contempt proceedings by not informing Lerner officially of the charges pending against her.
All 17 Democrats on the panel are expected to vote against the contempt charge Thursday. But they are outnumbered by the 21-member GOP majority on the panel.
Once the contempt vote clears the committee, it will be up to the House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to decide when to put Lerner's contempt charge before the House for a vote.
Boehner has suggested he might see if Lerner becomes more cooperative about talking to Congress.
“Speaker Boehner has been clear all along that if Ms. Lerner does not testify fully and truthfully, she will be held in contempt,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.