WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is preparing to vote Wednesday on holding a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at a pair of committee hearings about her role in the agency's tea party controversy.
Lois Lerner directed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. A year ago, Lerner publicly disclosed that agents had improperly singled out tea party applications for extra, sometimes burdensome scrutiny.
An inspector general's report blamed poor management but found no evidence of a political conspiracy. Many Republicans in Congress believe otherwise. "Who's been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS? No one that I'm aware of," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday. "Who's gone to jail for violating the law? When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth?"
House Democrats say Wednesday's vote is little more than an election-year ploy to fire up the GOP base. "Instead of passing bipartisan legislation to create more jobs, reform immigration, raise the minimum wage, or address any number of issues that affect our constituents every single day, House Republicans are spending this entire week trying to manufacture scandals for political purposes," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
"Welcome to witch hunt week," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. The measure is expected to pass the Republican-controlled House, sending the matter to the local U.S. attorney. The House is also voting Wednesday on another IRS measure, a nonbinding resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the agency. Holder has denied previous requests by individual members of Congress. The special counsel vote had been scheduled for Thursday.
Three congressional committees and the Justice Department have spent much of the past year investigating the IRS over its handling of applications for tax-exempt status. So far, the congressional investigations have revealed that IRS officials in Washington were more involved in handling the applications than the agency initially acknowledged.
However, the investigations have not publicly established that anyone outside the IRS knew about the targeting or directed it. Cummings released a report this week saying House Oversight Committee investigators have interviewed 39 witnesses, and found no involvement by the White House and no political conspiracy by IRS officials. Instead, many IRS witnesses said they lacked clear guidance from management on how to handle tea party applications, the report said.
A year ago this week Lerner was speaking at a Washington law conference when she made the agency's first public acknowledgment of the controversy. At the time, Lerner publicly apologized on behalf of the agency.
Most of the groups were applying for tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations. Agents were scrutinizing the applications to measure how much the groups were involved in politics. IRS regulations say social welfare groups can engage in electoral politics, but it cannot be their primary mission.
About two weeks after Lerner's public revelation, she was subpoenaed to appear at a House Oversight Committee hearing. Lerner read an opening statement, saying she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and never lied to Congress. Then she refused to answer lawmakers' further questions, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
The next day Lerner was placed on paid leave. She retired from the IRS last fall, ending a 34-year career in the federal government, including work at the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission.
The Oversight Committee later ruled in a party-line vote that Lerner forfeited her constitutional right not to testify by making an opening statement. All Republicans voted in favor while all Democrats voted against.
Committee Democrats have compiled a list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., countered with a memo from the House general counsel's office saying there is a legal foundation for holding Lerner in contempt.
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