Thursday’s vote came one day after the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday agreed in another party line vote to request that the Justice Department consider prosecuting Lerner for various alleged crimes, including misleading investigators and exposing confidential taxpayer information.
The Justice Department did not comment on the referral Wednesday, but a spokesman for the agency said DOJ’s own ongoing investigation of the targeting matter “remains a high priority.”
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said in a statement that his client had done nothing wrong and that no court in the country would agree that she is in contempt.
“We are not surprised by today’s partisan contempt vote,” Taylor said. ” The notion that the majority is engaged in objective oversight or fact-finding is pure fiction. The vote is the latest event in the majority’s never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall’s mid-term elections.”
Democrats on the panel expressed frustration with Lerner’s refusal to testify but said they oppose efforts to punish her for declining to testify.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she wants to know how the problematic screening methods continued for years under Lerners’s watch and why the former official “failed to inform Congress about the inappropriate targeting sooner.” But she also compared the committee’s contempt effort to actions by the former Committee on Un-American Activities and the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
“My constituents do not want Congress to go back to the McCarthy era,” Duckworth said. “I cannot support this effort to drag us into one of the darkest periods in the history of this institution.”
Issa responded that there is “sufficient reason to move contempt through the House and then ultimately have the question decided by a lifetime-appointment U.S. federal judge that I won’t get to pick and you won’t get to pick.”
Lerner, who headed an IRS division that reviews applications for tax exemption, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at two hearings when asked to testify about the targeting controversy. She denied wrongdoing before declining to answer questions during one of her appearances.
Democrats contend that the committee cannot legally pursue contempt charges against Lerner, arguing that the panel has not explicitly overruled her Fifth Amendment assertion or clearly directed her to testify or face contempt.
Republicans counter that the committee effectively overruled Lerner’s refusal to testify by voting that she waived her Fifth Amendment right by declaring herself innocent. They also say the committee advised the ex-IRS official that she could face contempt charges for refusing to answer questions at a hearing in March.
The House’s general counsel issued a memo last week largely agreeing with the Republican position, but Democrats have gathered opinions from more than 30 legal experts who support their stance.