Republican lawmakers on Friday passed a resolution declaring that an Internal Revenue Service official waived her Fifth Amendment right last month when she proclaimed her innocence at a congressional hearing, but legal experts said the vote is all but meaningless.
The House Oversight Committee called Lois Lerner to testify May 14 about the agency’s inappropriate scrutiny of groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Before invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Lerner told the committee: “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.”
Lerner’s attorney has said she is part of a Justice Department criminal investigation. The IRS has placed her on administrative leave.
“With the advice of counsel sitting right behind her, she testified to nine different factual assertions,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Friday. “The case law is clear. That is not the way the Fifth Amendment works.”
Legal experts questioned the oversight committee’s resolution.
Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and Fifth Amendment rights specialist who has said Lerner’s comments were a mistake, still criticized Friday’s vote as political. “It has no legal impact at all,” he said.
Andrew D. Leipold, a criminal law and procedure professor with the University of Illinois, agreed with Dershowitz.
“Just because Congress says that her Fifth Amendment right is waived doesn’t mean it’s actually waived,” Leipold said.
Nonetheless, Friday’s resolution paves the way for committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to recall Lerner for questioning. The Republican-led panel could vote to hold Lerner in contempt if she pleads the Fifth again, and that could lead to a legal battle.
Ranking Democrat Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) said the panel should hear from legal experts before voting, but the idea was rejected.
“This is not a responsible record to put forward, because it undermines the credibility of this committee and the legitimacy of the resolution itself,” Cummings said.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called the proceedings, which ended in a 22 to 17 party-line vote, an “egregious abuse of power that tramples the Constitution.” Lerner’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said the resolution would have no legal impact.
“Her rights under the constitution are no different now than they were when she asserted them,” he said in a statement.
Ali Ahmad, Issa’s spokesman, said the panel hasn’t decided whether to call Lerner again, but he added that the chairman recessed the May hearing instead of adjourning, creating the option.
Dershowitz said lawmakers could force her to testify by focusing on her brief remarks.
“Once you have put forward affirmative statements, you have to answer questions about those affirmative statements,” he said. “They would have to glove-fit the questions to what she said, and then she can’t take the Fifth.”