Lois Lerner, former director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the Internal Revenue Service, refuses to answer questions before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on March 5.
(USA TODAY) WASHINGTON - Former IRS official Lois Lerner again declined to answer any questions Wednesday when she appeared before a House committee investigating the tax agency's extra scrutiny of applications from conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
House Republicans had summoned Lerner to testify before Congress on Wednesday, more than nine months after she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has argued that she waived her rights at that May 22 hearing when she made an opening statement - noting she had done nothing wrong - and answered one question about a document that had been entered into the record.
In response to a series of pointed questions from Issa on Wednesday, Lerner repeatedly said, "On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer that question." Over the weekend, Lerner's attorney had apparently been negotiating with the committee over a possible deal that would have allowed her to testify, which had raised the possibility that she would speak Wednesday.
After about 15 minutes, Issa adjourned the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.
"I can see no point in going further," he said, saying it was clear Lerner was not going to cooperate.
When the ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, tried to ask a question, Issa told Republicans on the committee they could leave and the hearing was over. He also told Lerner she was free to go.
"Shame, shame," Democrats called out, as Republicans filed out of the hearing room.
Lerner is the former head of the IRS office that oversees non-profit organizations' applications for tax exempt status. Last year, Lerner acknowledged at a legal conference that the IRS had inappropriately delayed the applications of groups using "tea party" or other politically charged terms in their names, and had subjected some of these groups to invasive questions. The admission touched off a firestorm of criticism, as Republicans alleged that the Obama administration had been using the IRS to target its political opponents.
Lerner and her attorney, William Taylor, remained at the witness table as Cummings decried the Republican-controlled committee's investigation as a partisan witch hunt.
"From the very beginning this has been an effort to ... claim the White House targeted political enemies" through the IRS, Cummings said. But "there has not been any evidence whatsoever that there was political motivation" behind the IRS' handling of the tax exempt applications.
During Wednesday's brief session, Issa raised the possibility of holding Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify. He told reporters afterwards that he would confer with his GOP colleagues about their next steps, but signaled he would not rush a contempt proceeding.
"Ms. Lerner is not our primary concern today, nor is the contempt," he said. "Obviously we're going to continue investigating others at the IRS" and seek ways to compel Lerner's testimony, Issa said.
She is "a key character" who has information the committee wants and who "isn't willing to give it to us," he added.
After the hearing, Taylor said he told the committee's GOP majority that Lerner would be willing to testify if they delayed the hearing for a week. But Issa's staff rejected that.
After Issa made accusations about Lerner's role in the scandal in a Fox News interview on Sunday, Taylor said he decided Lerner would not be treated fairly at the hearing and decided to advise her against testifying.
"We lost confidence in the fairness and the impartiality of the forum," Taylor said. "It is completely partisan. There was no possibility in my view that Ms. Lerner would be given a fair opportunity to speak or to answer questions or to tell the truth."
It would have just been an opportunity for Issa and others to "vilify Ms. Lerner on television."
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