Wyoming Congressman Cynthia Lummis is so proud of voting to hold IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt, she sent out an email Monday crowing about it to her constituents.
Lerner formerly headed an IRS division that reviews nonprofit organizations’ requests for tax exemptions. House Republicans are investigating claims the IRS targeted conservative and Tea Party groups for special scrutiny.
“Lerner’s actions while employed at the IRS and her refusal to answer questions are truly contemptible,” wrote Lummis, who serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that voted along party lines last Thursday to hold the former IRS official in contempt. Her crime? Invoking her right not to incriminate herself.
The congressman concluded her correspondence by writing that she looked forward to hearing everyone’s “thoughts and concerns” on the issue. All right, since she asked nicely:
All Americans have the right under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution to refuse to testify to avoid self-incrimination. House Republicans may not like it, but that includes IRS officials. It’s important to note Lerner, no doubt sensing the committee’s hearing to be the witch hunt that it has turned out to be, actually was in negotiations to answer the panel’s questions.
According to The Huffington Post’s Michael McAuliff, Lerner’s lawyers asked Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to consider granting her immunity, which would have allowed the committee to learn the information it was supposedly after: whether any higher-ranking official had ordered the IRS to target conservative groups.
But Issa, apparently realizing he’s not going to be able to tie whatever happened to anyone at the White House, decided he at least needed someone at the IRS he could single out to blame. That person was the mid-level Lerner, who was only given the option to testify at the hearing. After proclaiming her innocence, she did exactly what the chairman and the committee’s lawyers must have known she would do since she wasn’t offered immunity: invoke the Fifth Amendment.
And that, of course, set off the righteous indignation of the Republicans on the committee, including Lummis, one of the 21 GOP representatives who voted last Thursday to censure Lerner. All of the Democrats voted against censuring her.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” Lummis wrote, “and I believe Lois Lerner abused that power by stifling conservative Americans’ 1st Amendment right to free speech. Ms. Lerner said, ‘I have done nothing wrong, I have broken no laws.’ But I believe that is a falsehood as shown in her own emails. … we need answers from Lois Lerner.”
It sounds like Lummis has already decided Lerner is guilty, so why did they even need a hearing?
The panel could have easily had the answers it sought. The Post’s McAuliff interviewed Gregory Gilchrist of the University of Toledo College of Law, who explained Lerner would have to answer the GOP’s questions if they granted her immunity. “[I]t’s what you’d normally expect them to do with a mid-level person – give immunity, get the information and proceed with the investigation,” he said.
That’s likely what would have happened if Republicans didn’t need to blow the incident out of proportion because none of their other efforts to find an Obama administration scandal panned out.
They couldn’t make a case about the Fast and Furious federal gun buying program, which started under former President George W. Bush. The four deaths at Benghazi went nowhere – no matter how loud and long Fox News shouted about it – and even if it had gained traction, Democrats could rightfully blame the tragedy on the cuts to embassy security funds the Republicans pushed through.
With Obamacare’s success making it fade as a topic the GOP can ride to victory, the so-called IRS “scandal” is the last thing they can pin their hopes on.
They claim that by telling the committee she’s innocent – which anyone in her situation would do — Lerner waived her right to plead the Fifth. But a panel of dozens of outside experts, including the former top counsel for the House, signed a letter that says she didn’t. Issa even said it wasn’t clear if she did, but the chairman pressed for a vote to hold her in contempt because then the case would be in the hands of a federal prosecutor.
Most legal experts think that’s where the case will end, too. Democrats on the committee pointed out the last time Congress held someone in contempt for asserting his or her Fifth Amendment right was when Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.) tried to hold nine people in contempt for pleading the Fifth in the 1950s.
All nine either had the charges dropped, or were cleared by courts. The same thing will probably happen in Lerner’s case, which makes the action mere partisan grandstanding, but it definitely benefits Republicans – the election will probably be long over before her legal fate is decided.
That seems to be precisely the way Republicans on the Oversight Committee wanted it: keep Lerner in the news; attack her because she must be guilty, or else she would have testified; and use the whole episode as a way to stir up the Tea Party so they go to the polls.
It would be great if the public sees through all that, and realizes the only thing Issa, Lummis and the other Republicans did was rip a page out of Joe McCarthy’s infamous playbook and trample on Lerner for daring to exercise her rights under the Constitution – yes, that document they claim to hold so dear.
The GOP may have gotten its way and found her in contempt, but in reality it means about as much as if they put her on double secret probation.