House Republicans are planning a vote next week on a contempt resolution for former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, who has declined to testify before a congressional panel about the agency’s controversial actions toward nonprofit groups.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) made the announcement during his regular Thursday review of the upcoming floor schedule.
Lerner has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at two hearings of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which called her to testify about the IRS targeting advocacy groups based on their names and policy positions.
The panel approved a contempt resolution last month in a party-line vote, sending the matter to the full House for consideration. The measure asks the Justice Department to consider criminally prosecuting Lerner, who headed an IRS division that reviewed tax-exemption applications.
The House Ways and Means Committee last month agreed in a separate party-line vote to request criminal prosecution of Lerner for various alleged violations, including misleading investigators and exposing confidential taxpayer information.
The Justice Department has said it is conducting an investigation of the IRS’s actions and that the case “remains a priority,” but a January Wall Street Journal report said the FBI does not plan to file criminal charges against Lerner.
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, has repeatedly denied that his client did anything illegal. Democrats on the panel have expressed frustration with the ex-official’s refusal to testify, but they have also opposed efforts to punish her for invoking the Fifth Amendment.
On Monday, Taylor sent a letter to Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) requesting a meeting with the GOP leaders to discuss his rationale against the contempt resolution. “Holding Ms. Lerner in contempt would not only be unfair and, indeed, un-American, it would be flatly inconsistent with the Fifth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” he said.
Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper said in response to the letter: “Ms. Lerner always has an opportunity to address the House by testifying before the House Oversight Committee. That invitation stands.”
Similarly, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said: “Ms. Lerner can avoid being held in contempt at any time by testifying fully and honestly, but she has chosen not to.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member, has argued that Republicans cannot legally pursue contempt charges against Lerner, saying the committee never explicitly overruled her Fifth Amendment assertion or clearly directed her to testify or face contempt.
Republicans contend that the panel effectively overruled Lerner’s refusal to testify by voting that she waived her Fifth Amendment right at a hearing last year in which she declaring herself innocent before refusing to testify. They also say the committee advised her that she could face contempt charges for refusing to answer questions at a follow-up hearing in March.
The House’s general counsel issued a memo last month largely agreeing with the Republican position, but Democrats have gathered opinions from more than 30 legal experts who support their stance.
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