The head of the IRS office that oversees non-profit groups refused to testify Wednesday at a congressional panel probing abuse at the US tax agency but defiantly declared she had done nothing wrong.
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations, invoked her Fifth Amendment constitutional rights against self-incrimination, citing accusations by lawmakers that she had earlier provided false testimony.
The Internal Revenue Service is at the core of a swirling scandal that has cast a shadow over President Barack Obama’s second term. Agents under Lerner’s management were found to have inappropriately scrutinized conservative organizations, including “Tea Party” groups, applying for non-profit status.
While she declined to answer questions by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, Lerner declared, “I have not done anything wrong.”
“I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee,” she said in brief remarks.
After denying Issa’s request to reconsider answering questions, Lerner was dismissed from the hearing, triggering outrage from some Republicans.
“She just testified,” argued congressman Trey Gowdy. “She’s waived her right…. She ought to stand here and answer our questions.”
The flashpoint was emblematic of a controversy that has turned increasingly acrimonious as lawmakers expressed disbelief that IRS officials were apparently ignorant of wrongdoing that took place within their ranks for 18 months.
“Congress was misled, the American people were misled,” Issa said, highlighting how his committee’s queries to the IRS in early 2012 went largely unanswered.
“We knew then that something seemed to be wrong. We knew then that there was smoke,” Issa said.
But he said officials like Lerner and the IRS’s then-commissioner Douglas Shulman, who also testified Wednesday, refused to update Congress of the improprieties after they learned about them.
Lerner, a career federal employee, joined the IRS division overseeing applications for tax-exempt status in 2001, and became its head in 2006. She said her unit processes 60,000 applications per year.
“I am very proud of the work that I have done in government,” she said.
It was Lerner who made the IRS wrongdoing public this month, days before a Treasury Department inspector general released his report detailing “inappropriate” targeting of conservative groups by the tax agency.
Democrat Stephen Lynch warned that continued stonewalling by IRS officials — who have refused to name anyone directly involved in the abuse or say whether more senior officials knew about it — will leave Congress “no alternative” but to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the wrongdoing.
“There will be hell to pay if that’s the route that we choose to go down,” Lynch snapped.
With Lerner gone, attention turned to Shulman, who was grilled at a Senate hearing Tuesday, and particularly why he declined to alert Congress about the targeting program when he first learned about it in spring 2012.
Shulman testified before a House panel in March 2012 and asserted there was “absolutely no targeting” going on, noted Elijah Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat.
“Even if you did not know it was going on when you testified, you learned about it soon after, but you never corrected the record,” Cummings said.
“It seems to me that you would come back even if it were a phone call or a letter,” he added. “I mean, common sense.”
Shulman stressed that while he had learned of a “Be On the Lookout,” or BOLO, list of groups including the words “Tea Party” or “Patriots” in their names, he did not alert lawmakers because “I didn’t have a full set of facts to come back to Congress or the committee with.”
Republicans drilled into whether Shulman had discussed the wrongdoing with White House officials, citing what they said was Shulman’s 118 visits to the White House during his IRS tenure.
Shulman said he never discussed the discrimination with White House staff, saying “it would not have been appropriate” to do so.
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