WASHINGTON (AP) — A House Committee voted Thursday to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at a pair of hearings.
The official, Lois Lerner, previously headed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. Last May, after providing an opening statement, Lerner refused to answer questions at a House Oversight Committee hearing about IRS agents improperly singling out tea party applications for extra scrutiny. She again refused to answer questions at hearing in March.
Lerner cited her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The Oversight Committee voted 21-12 Thursday to hold her in contempt. All Republicans voted in favor and all Democrats voted against.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Lerner had effectively waived her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions by providing an opening statement at the 2013 hearing. In her statement, Lerner said she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and never lied to Congress.
"We need Ms. Lerner's testimony to complete our oversight work," Issa said. "American taxpayers certainly don't get to plead the Fifth and escape all accountability when the IRS audits them."
Lerner's lawyer and Democrats on the committee disagree that she waived her constitutional rights by making an opening statement.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, has compiled a growing list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Some say Lerner did not waive her rights while others say that even if she did, Issa didn't follow proper procedures for holding her in contempt.
"The vote is the latest event in the majority's ?never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall's midterm elections," said Lerner's lawyer, William W. Taylor III. "Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence. There is ?not a court in this country that will hold Ms. Lerner in contempt of Congress."
Issa countered with a memo from the House general counsel's office that says he followed proper procedures.
The matter now goes to the full House.
"If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Cummings said Congress has had little success in having people prosecuted for refusing to testify at hearings. He asked the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to review cases in which people were prosecuted for contempt of Congress after invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Researchers came up with a handful of cases from the 1950s involving people who were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was famous for smearing witnesses for alleged ties to the Communist Party. All the convictions were overturned, except for a few in which defendants refused to provide documents.
Cummings seized on the analogy.
"I do not want to go back to the shameful era when Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the worst kind of partisan politics," Cummings said.
Lerner has emerged as a central figure in investigations by two congressional committees. On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to refer her to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
Ways and Means investigators say they have uncovered evidence that Lerner may have violated the constitutional rights of conservative groups, misled investigators and risked exposing confidential taxpayer information.
Taylor said Lerner has committed no crimes. He said Lerner has already been interviewed by the Justice Department.
Lerner is an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001. She retired last fall, ending a 34-year career in federal government, which included work at the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.
The IRS' inspector general said in a report last year that tax-exempt applications from tea party and other conservative groups were set aside for special scrutiny simply because they included words such as "tea party" and "patriots." Several hundred applications, from both conservative and liberal groups, languished for years without a ruling by the IRS, the report said.
Lerner first publicly disclosed the issue at a lawyers' conference in May 2013. At the time, she apologized on behalf of the IRS.
Soon afterward, President Barack Obama forced the acting IRS commissioner to resign, and much of the agency's top leadership has been replaced.