House panel voting on pressing IRS figure to talk

Associated Press
Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 27, 2013, to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing to report on the internal investigation into the extra scrutiny the IRS gave Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican-led House committee is ready to try pressuring a central figure in the Internal Revenue Service investigation to shed light on the episode, five weeks after she sat before that same panel and refused to answer lawmakers' questions.

The planned vote Friday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was aimed at Lois Lerner. She is a long-time IRS official whom agency executives put on administrative leave after she revealed that the IRS had singled out tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status for tough scrutiny.

Lerner was subpoenaed to testify to the Oversight Committee on May 22. When she appeared she said she had done nothing wrong, cited her constitutional right to not answer questions and left after a dramatic nine-minute standoff.

Lerner was a high-ranking IRS official in Washington who oversaw the agency's Cincinnati workers who screened applications for tax-exempt status. The IRS has apologized for imposing tough scrutiny on conservative groups who applied for that designation. It has since emerged that progressive groups also appeared on agency screening lists and that some suffered similar treatment.

Three congressional committees are investigating the IRS treatment of conservative groups, as is the Justice Department and the new leaders of the IRS itself. House Democrats are trying to expand the investigation to include how progressive groups were treated.

On Friday, the Oversight Committee was expected to approve a resolution along party lines stating that Lerner forfeited her right to remain silent by making opening remarks at last month's hearing.

Lerner's attorney, William W. Taylor, contested that theory in an email this week.

"Protesting your innocence and invoking right not to answer questions, which is what she did, is not a waiver. Legions of authority on our side," he wrote.

Taylor said in an email on Thursday that neither he nor Lerner would attend Friday's committee session.

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., expressed hope that the vote would motivate Lerner to return to the committee. The vote could lead to a deal under which Lerner testifies with limited immunity, or to contempt charges if she continues to insist on her Fifth Amendment rights, said a GOP committee aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Republican thinking.

The resolution states that "a witness may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details."

Several Republicans on the committee raised objections last month after Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment.

Democrats said Issa rejected their request to allow legal experts with differing views on whether Lerner had waived her right not to respond to questions by giving testimony proclaiming her innocence.

On Thursday, the controversy moved in another direction as a clash escalated between the Treasury Department inspector general who investigated the IRS and congressional Democrats who called his probe of the agency misleading.

In a letter to lawmakers released Thursday, J. Russell George said his investigation found "progressives" was not among the inappropriate terms IRS screeners used to decide if groups merited close scrutiny for political work. Too much political activity can disqualify an applicant for a tax-exempt designation.

But George also wrote that "additional research" by his investigators found that of 298 applicants for tax-exempt status that the IRS flagged for possible political involvement between 2010 and 2012, six had "progress" or "progressive" in their names. Fourteen other cases with "progress" or "progressive" in the group's name were not sidetracked for additional examination, he wrote.

While 30 percent of such groups got special attention because of possible political work, every applicant for tax-exempt status with "tea party," ''patriots" or "9/12" in their names was set aside for screening, George said.

The term "progressives" did appear on some lists released earlier this week by House Democrats that also included "tea party" and that IRS workers used to watch for groups that might merit tough exams. But George's letter noted that "progressives" appeared on a different part of those lists and said that such groups were sent to different screeners from the ones who processed tea party applications.

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said George should have revealed the appearance of progressive groups on the lists and the second set of screeners before now.

"The failure of the IG's audit to acknowledge these facts is a fundamental flaw in the foundation of the investigation and the public's perception of this issue," said Levin, using the abbreviation for inspector general.

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