U.S. House hearing on IRS scandal dissolves in shouting

Patrick Temple-West

By Patrick Temple-West

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A brief congressional hearing ended in shouting and confusion on Wednesday after a former U.S. Internal Revenue Service official refused to answer questions about a 10-month-old controversy involving IRS scrutiny of conservative political groups.

Lois Lerner, who was at the center of last year's so-called Tea Party targeting scandal, declined to answer questions from Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Issa, who has relentlessly pursued the tax agency over the controversy for months, dismissed Lerner and gaveled the hearing to a close after just 15 minutes, cutting off remarks by Representative Elijah Cummings, the panel's top Democrat.

Accusing Republicans of running a one-sided investigation, Cummings shouted after his microphone was turned off: "It is absolutely un-American!" Other committee Democrats shouted "shame" as Issa left the hearing room.

Lerner retired from the IRS in September. She had refused to answer questions from Issa once before, at a hearing in May 2013, where she invoked her constitutional right not to testify.

That was days after she issued a public apology, in answer to a planted question from the audience at a legal conference, in which she said the IRS had done "inappropriate" targeting of political groups with the words "Tea Party" in their names.

Her unexpected act of contrition at the conference set off a furor on Capitol Hill, with Republican politicians accusing the IRS of unfairly singling out for extra review and delay some applications for tax-exempt status from conservative groups.

The acting head of the IRS lost his job over the matter, while numerous investigations were launched, including Issa's.

The California Republican quickly turned his inquiry into an attempt to link the White House to the IRS activity, but to no avail. The investigations revealed no clear political bias at the IRS and showed it had also closely reviewed applications from progressive political groups for tax-exempt status.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Dan Grebler)