The House Oversight Committee on Friday approved a resolution that says Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right last month by claiming innocence during a congressional hearing.
The panel called Lerner to testify on May 14 about inappropriate screening and scrutiny the IRS had applied to groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Before invoking her privilege against self-incrimination, Lerner, whose lawyers have said she is part of a Justice Department criminal investigation, made a brief statement to the committee.
“I have not done anything wrong,” she said. “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.”
Republicans on the committee said Lerner’s remarks constitute a waiving of her Fifth Amendment right.
“With the advice of counsel sitting right behind her, she testified to nine different factual assertions,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “The case law is clear. That is not the way the Fifth Amendment works.”
Legal experts question the usefulness of the committee resolution. “It’s political,” said Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who specializes in Fifth Amendment rights. “It has no legal impact at all.”
Nonetheless, committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) could call Lerner to return for questioning, and the Republican-led panel could vote to hold her in contempt if she pleads the Fifth again. That, in turn, could lead to a legal battle in federal court.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, argued in his opening remarks that the panel should hear testimony about the matter from legal experts before taking a vote on the resolution. “This is not a responsible record to put forward, because it undermines the credibility of this committee and the legitimacy of the resolution itself,” he said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) issued harsher remarks, calling the proceedings on Friday an “egregious abuse of power that tramples the Constitution and serves no valid legislative purpose.”
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