5/22/13 10:15:58 AM -- Washington, DC, U.S.A -- Lois Lerner, Director of Exempt Organizations; Internal Revenue Service, reads her opening statement during "The IRS: Targeting Americans for Their Political Beliefs" in Room 2154 Rayburn House Office building. -- Photo by Andrew P. Scott, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT: AS 129724 IRS HEARINGS 5/21/2013 (Via OlyDrop)(Photo: Andrew P. Scott USAT)
Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
Washington, D.C. -- The IRS official responsible for tax exemptions refused to testify to a House oversight panel investigating the agency's treatment of conservative groups Wednesday.
Citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Lois Lerner would not answer questions about how the IRS developed the "be on the lookout" list for Tea Party groups, what she did when she discovered it, and why she failed to tell Congress about it when asked directly.
In asserting her Fifth Amendment rights, she said, "I know some people will assume I have done something wrong. I have not," she said. "I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee."
Lerner said she was following the advice of her attorney, who has cited the criminal investigation into the IRS's decision to target Tea Party groups for greater scrutiny beginning in 2010.
Republicans protested. "You don't get to tell your side of the story and then not stand for cross examination," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. "She waived her right against self-discrimination, she ought to sit here and answer our questions."
But Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., dismissed Lerner, saying she could be recalled if committee lawyers determine that she waived her rights by delivering an opening statement.
Though Lerner would not testify, she did provide written answers to the Treasury inspector general for tax administration last November. Those answers were provided to the committee Tuesday night, and Lerner verified for the committee Wednesday that the answers they had appeared to be hers.
"To the best of my knowledge, no individual or organization outside the IRS influenced the creation of these criteria," Lerner said in the written answers.
She wrote that when she first learned of a "be on the lookout" list that included Tea Party groups in June 2011, she immediately directed that the BOLO list be revised to eliminate the reference to "tea party" organizations and refer instead more generally to advocacy organizations.
IRS e-mails released by the House Oversight Committee Wednesday show that earlier in June 2011, a manager asked for criteria to determine whether an applicant is a "tea party" case
"Do the applications specify/state 'tea party?' If not, how do we know applicant is involved with the tea party movement?" asked Program Manager Cindy M. Thomas.
A response, from Group Manager John Shafer, indicated the criteria to be used to indicate a "tea party" group that should be sent for "secondary screening." They included "Tea Party" or "Patriots" in the group name, an interest in government spending or debt issues, advocacy activities "to make America a better place to live," and "statements in the case file that are critical of how the country is being run."
"Unbeknownst to me," Lerner told the inspector general last year, the Cincinnati office changed the criteria again in January 2012 to include "political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform/movement."
As Lerner refused to testify, one of her employees is cooperating with the committee's investigation.
Holly Paz, who was the director of Rulings and Agreements, spoke to committee staffers behind closed doors Tuesday, Rep. Issa said.
Paz told the investigators that the IRS conducted its own internal review of its handling of Tea Party cases and came to the same conclusion as the inspector general's audit a year ago.
But Issa said he was also troubled to learn that Paz was so involved in the inspector general's review, sitting in on interviews with subordinates even as they were asked if higher-ups were responsible.
An inspector general's report last week found that the IRS's Cincinnati office, which processes all applications for tax exemptions, put any group with the words "tea party," "patriot" and "9/12 project" into a separate process where they languished for more than a year. A USA TODAY review of applications processed during that time found that many groups with "progress" or "organizing" in their names were routinely approved in the same time frame.
Lerner played a pivotal role in the operation. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said she failed to tell Congress about the targeting of Tea Party groups when asked 14 times by members of Congress over the past year -- even as recently as this month. Then, when the inspector general's report was about to be released, she came up with a plan to plant a question at a conference, which allowed her to publicly apologize, IRS officials have testified.