WASHINGTON – The lawyer for a former Internal Revenue Service official at the heart of the agency’s tea party controversy asked Monday to address the House ahead of a vote to hold his client in contempt of Congress.
He probably won’t get the chance.
Lois Lerner directed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. This month, the House Oversight Committee voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at a pair of hearings about IRS agents improperly singling out tea party applications for extra scrutiny.
“We write to request an opportunity to present to the House the reasons why it should not hold Ms. Lerner in contempt,” Lerner’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, wrote in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Holding Ms. Lerner in contempt would not only be unfair and, indeed, un-American, it would be flatly inconsistent with the Fifth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” Taylor wrote.
In an email, Taylor clarified that Lerner’s lawyers would address the House, if given the chance — not Lerner herself.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, “Ms. Lerner can avoid being held in contempt at any time by testifying fully and honestly, but she has chosen not to.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., responded on Twitter: “The House welcomes the opportunity for Lois Lerner to address our members. She can do so at any time before the House Oversight Committee.”
The House is expected to vote on the contempt measure in May, according to a memo from Cantor to House Republicans.
Taylor’s appearance before the House would be extraordinary. Other than House members, the privilege of addressing the full House is generally reserved for foreign leaders, dignitaries and, of course, the president.
Lerner was subpoenaed by the Oversight Committee last year after publicly acknowledging that the IRS had improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012.
At the May 2013 hearing, Lerner read an opening statement in which she proclaimed her innocence. Then she refused to answer lawmakers’ questions, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
The next day Lerner was placed on paid leave. She retired from the IRS last fall, ending a 34-year career in the federal government, including work at the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission.
The Oversight Committee later ruled in a party-line vote that Lerner had forfeited her constitutional right not to testify by making an opening statement. All Republicans voted in favour while all Democrats voted against.
Committee Democrats have compiled a list of constitutional experts who say the contempt case is weak. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., countered with a memo from the House general counsel’s office saying there is a legal foundation for holding Lerner in contempt.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, complained that the House is poised to act without hearing from any experts.
“Before members of Congress are asked to take the grave step of stripping an American citizen of her Fifth Amendment rights — something Congress has not attempted to do since the McCarthy era — I believe the Republican leadership should do what Chairman Issa has refused to do for the last nine months: allow members to hear directly from Ms. Lerner’s attorney and from some of the more than 30 independent legal experts who have concluded that his contempt proceeding will be thrown out of court,” Cummings said.
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