IRS official Lois Lerner placed on leave amid scandal

At a hearing of the House Oversight Committee Wednesday, IRS Director of exempt organizations Lois Lerner invoked her fifth amendment rights, saying she was innocent of any wrong doing. (The Washington Post)

The Internal Revenue Service official responsible for the office that targeted certain organizations seeking tax-exempt status was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday, making her the second senior official to be disciplined in the wake of the scandal.

Lois G. Lerner is the director of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division and was the first agency official to publicly acknowledge that employees inappropriately targeted certain conservative-leaning organizations.

The IRS did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday evening. Lerner’s attorney, William W. Taylor, also did not return requests for comment.

Lerner’s removal comes after acting commissioner Steven T. Miller resigned last week at the request of President Obama. In his place, Obama installed Danny Werfel, a former White House budget official, who will oversee the agency until Sept. 30.

Werfel confirmed Lerner’s removal in an e-mail to employees Thursday afternoon by saying that he had selected Ken Corbin, a deputy director from another IRS division, to lead the tax-exempt unit. Werfel said Corbin “is a proven leader during challenging times” and has experience “leading large work groups,” skills that make him “an ideal choice” to lead the unit “through this difficult period.”

On Thursday, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who lead the Senate Committee on Investigations, wrote to Werfel urging him to remove Lerner, saying that failing to do so “would erode public trust and confidence” in the IRS.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that Werfel had asked Lerner to resign and that she had refused, leading to her being placed on leave.

The federal government does not track how often career employees like Lerner are placed on paid administrative leave, but cases involving accusations of wrongdoing can stretch for months or even years as the employees continue to collect a paycheck.

Despite her removal, Lerner may still face further congressional scrutiny.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Thursday that he wants Lerner to come back before his committee to face more questions in the case.

But Issa said he will wait for recommendations from congressional lawyers before making a final decision on whether to call Lois Lerner before the committee again.

Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment in her refusal to testify before the oversight panel Wednesday, but the fact that she gave a lengthy opening statement defending herself and verbally verified the contents of a document prompted some lawmakers to suggest that she had essentially waived her right against self-incrimination.

Issa said Thursday that he is awaiting recommendations from committee lawyers, the nonpartisan House Counsel, other outside legal experts and committee Democrats before proceeding. But he said that he is inclined to agree with GOP colleagues who raised a point of order during the hearing and objected to Issa’s decision to dismiss Lerner.

“This is a big thing that we want to get right,” Issa told reporters. “We were prepared to accept her asserting her Fifth Amendment rights, but she did these other things, and we just want to have it right.”

Issa decided to recess Wednesday’s hearing instead of formally adjourning the proceedings as he awaits the recommendations of lawyers. Pressed on whether he would recall Lerner, Issa said that “Procedurally, I believe it may in all likelihood be necessary to finish the hearing. If it’s not, I wouldn’t do it, but if it is, we’ll bring her back for that reason.”

In effect, Issa and his lawyers are mulling whether Lerner’s detailed opening statement could be interpreted as a “subject matter waiver,” meaning she had made factual statements about the case, which then opened the door for the committee to ask her for more details.

Taylor has said he strongly disagrees with that analysis and it is unclear whether his client will willingly return to testify. If Lerner refuses, the oversight committee would have to order her in contempt of Congress, and a judge would have to rule in favor of the order if it’s challenged.

But the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), said he didn’t think Issa “wants to go that far” in seeking a judge’s opinion. Cummings, an attorney, said he had “absolutely no doubt” that Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights.

In the course of her opening statement, 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.”

Top congressional leaders also traded barbs Thursday over which political party is more responsible for the scandal engulfing that IRS.

“Today is a new day, which means that we’re sure to get a new story from the White House on the IRS scandal,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said at the start of his weekly news conference.

Boehner criticized the Obama administration for not only mishandling the situation, but also for failing to clearly explain when top officials and Obama first learned about the scandal.

“What is most troubling in this White House is that the lights are on but there doesn’t seem to be anybody at home,” Boehner said. “The IRS systematically violated the rights of Americans for almost two years. Treasury Department knew about this last year, and the White House was made aware of it last month, yet no one — no one thought that they should tell the president. Fairly inconceivable to me.”

In similar remarks to reporters, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted that the scandal began under the leadership of Douglas Shulman, who was appointed to lead the IRS by President George W. Bush.

“The president doesn’t know about everything that is going on in every agency of government,” Pelosi said. “Should Mr. Boehner have known, because this is his neighboring district, and since — Cincinnati, where the IRS office is? ... I think that obviously, the public will make its decision about it, but that’s it.”

Josh Hicks contributed to this report.

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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