Lois Lerner joins an exclusive club


Former IRS official Lois Lerner. (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke).

Updated 9:25 p.m.

The House of Representatives voted 231 to 187 Wednesday to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress -- a long-anticipated vote that came just a few days short of the one-year anniversary of Lerner's first apology for the tax agency's decision to improperly target and investigate conservative-leaning tax-exempt political organizations.

Congress has the authority to hold someone in contempt if the person is believed to be obstructing "the proceedings of Congress" or an inquiry by a congressional committee.

Now the matter will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. The contempt charge will then be referred to a grand jury for further review, but it is unclear how the Justice Department will proceed. Politically, however, House Republicans will be able to declare victory after working swiftly in the last year to investigate the matter and hold a senior IRS official accountable for the agency's decision and her unwillingness to cooperate with a congressional investigation.

If ever convicted, Lerner could face between one and 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $100,000. She now joins more than a dozen senior government officials held in contempt by congressional committees in the last four decades for either lying to lawmakers or refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations. The list includes former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was held in contempt by the House Intelligence Committee in 1975 over refusal to share information regarding Soviet compliance with an arms agreement. Former Labor Secretary Joseph A. Califano, former Energy secretaries Charles Duncan and James Edwards, former Attorney General Janet Reno and former White House Counsel Jack Quinn also were held in contempt by committees.

Of those officials, only five besides Lerner have been found in contempt by the full House. Here's a quick review of those five people and the situation that resulted in a vote by the full House:


Anne Burford (left), and Rita Lavelle (right). (Photos by Ira Schwarz/AP and Larry Morris/Post)

Anne Gorsuch Burford and Rita Lavelle

Burford was head of the Environmental Protection Agency when she became the first federal agency boss ever held in contempt of Congress in 1982. She had refused to hand over documents related to the mishandling of EPA's Superfund.

Burford initially refused to turn over the documents, arguing that they were protected by executive privilege. She was acting under orders from President Reagan and with the advice of the Justice Department, friends told reporters at the time. But the EPA handed over the documents several months later after the White House dropped its legal challenge. Under pressure, Burford resigned.

Her aides later described the Reagan administration's decision to drop the case as a "cold-blooded, treacherous act of political callousness" and Burford later wrote in a 1986 memoir that the episode was an "expensive mid-life education."

"When congressional criticism about the EPA began to touch the presidency, Mr. Reagan solved his problem by jettisoning me and my people, people whose only 'crime' was loyal service, following orders," she wrote in her book. "I was not the first to receive his special brand of benevolent neglect, a form of conveniently looking the other way, while his staff continues to do some very dirty work,"

Burford died in 2004.

Lavelle ran the EPA Superfund and was at the center of "Sewergate," as it was characterized by some newspapers at the time. She was held in contempt of Congress in April 1983 and later indicted for lying to Congress, becoming the only Reagan administration official tied to the scandal who was convicted of a felony.

At issue was whether Lavelle knew that her previous employer, Aerojet General Corp., had been dumping toxic waste at an EPA cleanup site in California, and whether she properly recused herself from decisions on the matter.

When she showed up to serve her six-month prison term in April 1985, Lavelle told reporters that "It is totally ludicrous that I have to go through with this. But I've made a decision to end two years of hell and go through with it."

She later became active in California GOP politics, but was sentenced in January 2005 to 15 months in prison for wire fraud and two counts of lying to the FBI in connection with an investigation into another California company tied up in a Superfund dispute.

Former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, during a visit to Capitol Hill. (AP)
Former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, during a visit to Capitol Hill. (AP)

Joshua B. Bolten and Harriet Miers

The House approved contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers in February 2008 over their refusal to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of U.S. attorneys and allegations that administration officials sought to politicize the Justice Department.

They became the first West Wing aides ever held in contempt of Congress and the vote came in regards to a long-simmering dispute over executive privilege.

The vote came on a chaotic day that forced some lawmakers to briefly leave a memorial service for the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and ended with most House Republicans walking off the House floor and refusing to cast a vote. But Democrats went ahead with the vote, saying that George W. Bush had refused to allow any current or former West Wing staff members to testify about the firings scandal.

Ultimately, Miers and top Bush adviser Karl Rove agreed to testify under oath on the matter in March 2009. Miers is now a partner with a Texas-based law firm and Bolten is managing director of the economic policy advisory firm Rock Creek Global Advisors.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Eric H. Holder Jr.

The House voted in June 2012 to make Holder the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress. He had withheld documents that Republican lawmakers demanded as part of an investigation into a flawed gun-running operation known as "Fast and Furious." More than 100 House Democrats abstained from the vote.

Holder later described the vote as “the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided — and politically motivated — investigation during an election year.” He accused Republicans leading the investigation of focusing “on politics over public safety.” House Republicans later disputed that charge.

Despite predictions that the vote would force Holder from office, he remains in charge of the Justice Department. And he maintains little regard for Congress.

Last month during a House Judiciary Committee hearing he sparred with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) on an unrelated matter and Gohmert suggested that Holder didn't think the 2012 contempt vote was "a big deal."

A visibly upset Holder shot back at Gohmert: "You don’t want to go there, buddy. You don’t want to go there, okay?"

The next day in a speech Holder accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the maximum financial penalty Lerner might one day face.

House Republicans on Wednesday voted to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at a pair of committee hearings. (AP)
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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