WASHINGTON — At the center of a political storm, an Internal Revenue Service supervisor whose agents targeted conservative groups swore Wednesday she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and never lied to Congress. Then she refused to answer lawmakers' further questions, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
In one of the most electric moments since the IRS controversy erupted nearly two weeks ago, Lois Lerner unwaveringly — but briefly — defended herself before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But she would say no more, citing legal advice in the face of a federal investigation.
Members of Congress have angrily complained that Lerner and other high-ranking IRS officials did not inform them that conservative groups were singled out, even though lawmakers repeatedly asked the IRS about it after hearing complaints from local tea party groups.
The Justice Department has launched a criminal probe of the murky events over the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, saying it is looking into potential civil rights violations. Top IRS officials say Lerner didn't tell them for nearly a year after she learned that agents working under her had improperly singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Under unrelenting criticism — most forcefully from Republicans but also from Democrats and people outside politics — administration officials from President Barack Obama on down have denounced the targeting as inappropriate and inexcusable.
Lerner, who heads the IRS division that handles applications for tax-exempt status and first disclosed the targeting at a legal conference, has said the same. But she also spoke up for herself Wednesday, sitting stern-faced at the committee witness table.
"I have not done anything wrong," she said. "I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee."
By one lawmaker's count, Lerner was asked 14 times by members of Congress or their staffs without revealing that the groups had been targeted. On Wednesday, lawmakers didn't get a chance to ask Lerner again.
Nine minutes after she began speaking, Lerner was excused, though committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he might recall her. He and other Republicans say they believe she forfeited her Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify by giving an opening statement in which she proclaimed her innocence, but several law professors were skeptical they could make that stick.
Issa later said he would consult with others — including her lawyer and House attorneys — before determining whether to summon her again, hopefully deciding by the time Congress returns from an upcoming recess early next month.
"She's a fact witness with a tremendous amount that she could tell us," Issa said.
By leaving early, Lerner missed out on a six-hour grilling that three other witnesses endured.
The hearing was Congress' third on the IRS controversy in the past week. Taken together, testimony by current and former officials indicates that Lerner's actions were consistent with theirs: Once officials learned that conservative groups were being targeted, they say they made sure the practice was stopped, but they were slow to tell superiors, if they did so at all.
They also didn't tell Congress, until Lerner herself made it public at a May 10 legal conference.
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"Think about it. For more than a year, the IRS knew that it had inappropriately targeted groups of Americans based on their political beliefs without mentioning it," Issa said. "There seemed to be a culture of insulation that puts higher priority on deniability than addressing blatant wrongdoing."
The hearings have been notable for what they have not shown as well as what they have. No evidence has emerged that anyone outside the IRS, including the White House, directed agents to go after conservative groups. And there has been no evidence that anyone outside the IRS was made aware that the groups were being targeted until a few weeks before the inspector general released his report on the situation last week.