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Congress Spurs Constitutional Fight Over Ex-IRS Official

Ex-IRS Official Testifies to House Oversight Committee
Ex-IRS Official Testifies to House Oversight Committee
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has issued a citation of contempt to Lois Lerner, former head of the Exempt Organizations Unit of the Internal Revenue Service, for refusing to testify there is now a congressional and legal debate about whether or not the citation, not used since the 1950's, is reminiscent of McCarthyism.

Lerner, 63, was issued the citation after refusing to testify twice, once based on the fact that she was innocent and next invoking the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

However, Republicans argue that Lerner had already tried to defend herself and therefore could not invoke the Firth Amendment. Republican Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) claimed that Lerner had made over 17 attempts to defend herself already, disqualifying her from taking the Fifth.

"Please tell me what constitutes waiver if saying 17 seperate things does not, " said Gowdy.

Another Republican, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) gave an ominous warning to Lerner. "One thing that's clear about Lois Lerner is she's going to understand her Miranda Rights," said the congressman, referring to rights issued to those about to be arrested.

At the center of the controversy are allegations that Lerner targeted organizations affiliated with the Tea Party who were applying for tax-exempt status. Republicans accuse Lerner of violating the civil rights of organizations who she deemed conservative by the name of the organization. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, G.O.P. leaders contend:

• Lerner violated the civil rights of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. "The most significant piece to me was that there was a potential intervention in the appeals process," said Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. "We have some evidence that Lois Lerner intervened in that process." E-mails show Lerner e-mailed the head of IRS appeals in early 2013, describing the cases as "sensitive and visible" and trying to set up a meeting outside the normal appeals process.

• Lerner impeded investigations by the Treasury Department and Congress by giving misleading answers to questions about when the targeting began. Specifically, she said the Cincinnati IRS office was seeing an uptick in applications from political groups when her e-mails suggest she knew there was no hard data to support the statement.

• She may have disclosed confidential taxpayer information by forwarding sensitive IRS e-mails to a personal account she appeared to share with her husband, a Washington attorney.

William Taylor, Lerner's attorney, said that the contempt citation was only a case of political upmanship in an effort to get votes for the upcoming Fall mid-term elections.

"The committee's referral affects nothing. The Department of Justice is already investigating the ‎IRS. This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain," he said.

Democrats are infuriated by Republican claims and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who admitted that the question of Lerner violating her rights was unclear. "These are all issues that will, if we refer this contempt motion, be heard by a federal judge.", said Issa.

High-ranking Democrat Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-Md.) said it would have been preferrable to have independent experts allowed to testify to the committee so members could hear informed legal advice, despite the fact that Congress is the legislative branch and they are our legislators.

The issue of Constitutional rights is at the center of this debate, as usual, in a controversy over the Fifth Amendment and a congressional citation of contempt in the face of its invocation, colored by the intense interest of the populace in the conviction of an ex-IRS official. Perhaps both sides have a stake in the claim but the public is the ultimate recipient of its questionable justice.

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