Lerner taking Fifth undermines confidence in IRS

Like plaids with stripes, federal employees wearing the Fifth Amendment don’t look good.

We all have the right to wear clothes that clash. And everyone in this country has the right not to provide testimony that could be used against them.

But when federal workers invoke that right, as Lois Lerner did at a House hearing Wednesday, it comes with a cost. A public servant who refuses to answer questions from Congress about the public’s business clashes with the public’s expectations.

 

U.S. Director of Exempt Organizations for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Lois Lerner waits to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters). IRS director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner waits to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters).

By asserting her right, she further undermined the credibility of her employer, the Internal Revenue Service, an agency whose reputation has been beaten bloody by the scandal over the targeting of conservative organizations.

Perhaps it’s not fair, but it is inevitable – and understandable — that Lerner’s refusal to answer questions gives the impression she has something to hide about her involvement in that operation.

Ironically, Lerner, the IRS director of exempt organizations, seems to be the only one with a spot unsoiled by the dirt that now covers the agency. When she learned that IRS staffers were using inappropriate criteria, she “immediately directed that the criteria be changed,” according to an inspector general’s report.

Yet, as she acknowledged, members of Congress “have accused me of providing false information” and The Post’s Fact Checker has awarded her four Pinocchios, signifying “whoppers” for “misstatements and weasely wording.”

Actually, Lerner did testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, but only through her prepared statement. Her lawyer, William W. Taylor III, had tried to get her excused from the hearing because of an onling Justice Department criminal investigation, saying in a letter to the panel that having her appear “merely to assert her Fifth Amendment privilege would have no purpose other than to embarrass or burden her.”

Lerner seemed more defiant than embarrassed.

Succeeding in having it both ways, she provided her side of the story, but refused to answer questions, raising some heated objections.

“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 congressional committee,” she said. “And while I would very much like to answer
your committee’s questions today, I have been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify or answer questions related to the subject matter of this hearing….

“Because I’m asserting my right not to testify I know people will assume I’ve done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic rights of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals and that’s the protection I’m invoking today, thank
you.”

Minutes later, she was gone.

federaldiary@washpost.com

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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