IRS Official's Silence Riles House Committee Members

May 23, 2013
Originally published on May 24, 2013 12:54 pm
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The IRS has admitted to targeting conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. And yesterday at a House hearing the IRS director of exempt organizations said, quote: "I have not done anything wrong." She then declined to testify. Lois Lerner's brief appearance at the committee was just the beginning of a stormy, five-hour session filled with angry outbursts and allegations of political motives.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Lois Lerner did read a statement that she had done her job properly.


LOIS LERNER: I know that some people will assume that I have done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic functions of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals, and that is the protection I am invoking today.

OVERBY: Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, let Lerner go. He said he would see if she might testify later on some limited subjects. South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, objected.


REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: She waived her right to Fifth Amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement. She ought to stand here and answer our questions.

OVERBY: Issa tried to calm things. He said the committee's goal was to investigate IRS abuses, not to score political points.


REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Let's all be Republicrats and Demicans today.

OVERBY: And for a while, lawmakers aimed their anger mostly at Douglas Shulman. He's a former IRS commissioner who, in March 2012, told the panel there was absolutely no targeting. Shortly after that he found out there was a list of conservative groups that had been selected for more scrutiny.

Massachusetts Democrat Steven Lynch lit into Shulman.


REPRESENTATIVE STEVEN LYNCH: When you learned that there was a list, you did nothing. You did nothing. You abdicated your responsibility. And you allowed Congress to proceed under your prior information that was false, that was untrue. And you never came back.

OVERBY: Shulman defended his hands-off attitude toward the targeting problem and an audit by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. He was questioned closely on the 118 times he visited the Obama White House as IRS commissioner. He said the most common topics were the budget, tax policy, the fiscal cliff, and the Affordable Care Act, which the IRS is helping to implement.

Ohio Republican Jim Jordan drew a connection between implementing the ObamaCare law and going after groups that opposed it.


REPRESENTATIVE JIM JORDAN: You're at the White House 118 times talking about the Affordable Care Act, and you never had any conversations about the targeting that was going on of groups who opposed the Affordable Care Act. And the American people are supposed to believe that.

OVERBY: Shulman denied there was any connection.

By the end of the hearing, everyone was still angry at the IRS. But the bipartisan feeling was wearing thin. Issa said he was rethinking Lois Lerner's Fifth Amendment claim and wondering if Gowdy was right.


ISSA: I am looking into the possibility of recalling her and insisting that she answer questions in light of a waiver.

OVERBY: But even if the committee recalls Lerner, she could still decline to testify.

Washington white collar defense lawyer Stan Brand takes it from there.

STAN BRAND: What remedy does the committee have to force her to testify? And the only way they can do that is to instigate the congressional contempt process, put her in contempt of Congress, vote it on the House floor and send it over to the Department of Justice for prosecution.

OVERBY: It sounds serious but it could take years.

Also yesterday, the IRS's new acting commissioner started his job. Danny Werfel's first order of business: a 30-day review of the agency with a report back to President Obama.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.