Contempt Charge Likely Against Former IRS Division Leader Lerner

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will meet on April 10 to discuss if they should hold former IRS division director Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.  Representative Darrell Issa, California Republican and the chairman of the committee, announced the timing of the meeting on Thursday.

Congress has called Lerner before them on two occasions to answer questions about the IRS targeting scandal of 2013.  In both appearances before Congress, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Lerner was the Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division during the scandal.  Lerner’s position with the IRS was such that she should have knowledge of the targeting scandal.  However, Lerner is the only IRS official called to speak before Congress on the matter who has invoked the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In addition, e-mails and other evidence show that Lerner was involved in if not the leader of the effort by the IRS to target certain conservative and Tea Party organizations applying for tax exempt status.  The IRS delayed approval of applications of targeted applications for months or years, hampering the ability of those organizations to support candidates.

“Documents and testimony point to Lois Lerner as a senior IRS official responsible for conduct that deprived Americans of their rights to free speech and equal protection under our laws,” read a statement issued by Representative Issa.  “Americans expect accountability and want Congress to do all it can to gather relevant evidence about what occurred and who was responsible so that this never happens again.  Ms. Lerner’s involvement in wrongdoing and refusal to meet her legal obligations has left the Committee with no alternative but to consider a contempt finding.”

Many legal experts and House Republicans believe Lerner waived her right to invoke the Fifth Amendment during her first appearance before Congress when she issued several statements, including a claim that she was innocent of any wrongdoing.  Therefore, her subsequent refusal to answer Congress’ questions constitutes contempt.

A number of House Democrats believe the committee has not followed the necessary procedures to find Lerner in contempt.  According to Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, Issa did not formally warn Lerner that she would face consequences if she did not answer Congress’ questions.

However, Issa responded that Cummings’ allegations were based on an incomplete knowledge of the facts.  The committee ruled after Lerner’s first appearance before Congress and use of her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination that Lerner had waived that right by declaring herself innocent of any wrongdoing.  Issa’s office proceeded to warn Lerner before her second appearance before Congress that she would face contempt charges if she did not answer their questions.

As the committee is Republican-controlled, the committee will very likely vote in favor of the contempt of Congress charge.

Contempt Charge Carries Possible Jail Time for Former IRS Official Lerner

Finding someone in contempt of Congress takes several steps.  The committee must first make the decision to pursue the contempt charge, which will likely happen during the committee meeting on April 10.  The charge would then go before the entire House for a vote.

If the House votes to find Lerner in contempt, the charge would enter the court system.  The courts could levy a fine against Lerner or subject her to jail time.

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by Mark Johnston

Mark has been a contributor to legal web sites related to bankruptcy, tax, and criminal law since 2011. He has an Accounting degree from Texas A&M University.