Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner refuses to answer questions as the House Oversight Committee holds a hearing to investigate the extra scrutiny the IRS gave Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday voted along party lines to refer former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution for alleged actions relating to the IRS’s targeting controversy.

Republicans said they have evidence that Lerner helped direct IRS targeting efforts specifically aimed at conservative groups, and that she misled investigators and exposed confidential taxpayer information.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that the information suggests “willful misconduct” and possible violations of “multiple federal criminal statues” by Lerner, who headed an IRS division that reviews tax-exemption applications.

The 23 to 14 vote on Wednesday took place behind closed doors so that lawmakers could discuss protected taxpayer information.

Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said Wednesday that the referral is “just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain.” He also noted that the Justice Department is already investigating the IRS targeting matter.

“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong,” Taylor added. “She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption. Those are the facts.”

Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said Wednesday that his agency’s investigation into the handling of tax-exemption applications “remains a high priority.”

Democrats on the panel criticized Republicans for Wednesday’s vote, which allowed protected taxpayer information in the referral to become public.

“Republicans took this unprecedented step in an effort to continue their year-long baseless campaign to make a scandal out of IRS mismanagement even though they have failed to prove any of their allegations of White House involvement, pursuit of an enemies list, or targeting of only conservative groups,” Democrats said in a statement.

Camp’s letter said that e-mails from Lerner demonstrate that she showed a “favorable disposition toward left-leaning groups.”

The letter mentioned a January 2013 e-mail exchange in which Lerner discussed a nonprofit group founded by President Obama’s allies that planned to set up a Washington office. She said: “Oh — maybe I can get the DC office job.”‎

Camp said Lerner singled out Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit advocacy group co-founded by Karl Rove, for aggressive IRS review.

The letter stated that Democracy 21, a proponent of campaign-finance reform, had met with the IRS in January 2013 to discuss concerns that left- and right-leaning nonprofit organizations were violating federal limits on political activities for such groups.

Camp said Lerner increased scrutiny of Crossroads after the meeting. Documents show that she e-mailed an IRS official on the day of the meeting to ask why the IRS had not audited the group, calling it a “prime candidate for exam.”

“You should know that we are working on a denial of the application, which may solve the problem because we probably will say it isn’t exempt,” Lerner said in the e-mail. “Please make sure all moves regarding the org are coordinated up here before we do anything.”

Camp said there is “no evidence [Lerner] directed reviews of similarly situated left-leaning groups.”

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said Wednesday that the IRS’s Crossroads examination alone was not inappropriate. “Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center documented the case that Crossroads GPS was not entitled to a tax-exempt status beginning in the summer of 2010, and from our standpoint the IRS was far too slow in dealing with this issue,” he said.

Lerner has twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right when asked to testify about the IRS and its extra scrutiny of groups based on their names and policy positions. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution to hold her in contempt of Congress.

The IRS actions, detailed in an inspector general’s report last year, cost several officials their jobs and led to investigations with two congressional committees and the Justice Department. Lerner retired from the IRS in September.