The return of Lois Lerner

IRS scandal figure Lois Lerner’s slow-motion performance-art contempt of Congress saga continues, as reported by Politico:

House Republicans are gearing up to take their IRS tea party-targeting investigation to a whole new level next week — potentially even holding former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has recalled Lerner — the former head of the tax-exempt division — to Capitol Hill for another hearing next Wednesday. Lerner became the face of the nine-month-old IRS scandal when she admitted the agency singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny when applying for tax exemptions.

Actually, I think that’s only half the reason she “became the face of the IRS scandal.”  The other reason is her key role in perpetrating much of it.  She’s got a history of political activity within government offices; there have long been dark suspicions she was installed at the IRS to enable precisely the shenanigans that ensued, with conservative groups targeted for mind-boggling levels of harassment.  Donors and group organizers were intimidated, while tax-exemption approvals were not expressly denied (which would have been quick, clean, and subject to challenge) but slow-walked until the 2012 election was safely concluded.

It certainly didn’t help that Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights to escape testifying about what President Obama initially described as an incredible outrage he would get to the bottom of, but now refers to as strange obsession of Fox News.  I guess that means Obama thinks Lerner was lying when she began this entire saga by admitting wrongdoing at the IRS, in a press conference, to a planted questioner, in order to get herself and supervisors ahead of a devastating internal report.  At any rate, Lerner doesn’t want to discuss her actions in Congressional testimony, since for some reason she apparently thinks doing so might implicate her in something nasty, with results more significant than a tongue-lashing from Bill O’Reilly.

Lerner’s attorney now says she doesn’t want to testify because she “fears for her life and has received numerous death threats,” according to Politico.  One of these threats was reportedly “looked into” by the FBI.  Who’s threatening her, and what reason is there to believe her security situation would grow more precarious if she testified before Congress?

At any rate, she might have trouble using the Fifth Amendment to escape testimony again, because there has been a long-running argument over whether her conduct at earlier hearings invalidates such claims:

Lerner’s silence, however, won’t save her from Republicans who claim she lost that right at a May 2013 hearing where she proclaimed her innocence in an opening statement — and then took the Fifth. Republicans argue that Lerner is legally obligated to answer questions on that statement and are considering a plan to force her to if she doesn’t do so willingly.

“There is talk about contempt,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the head of the subcommittee with IRS jurisdiction, told POLITICO. “We’ll see — we’ve got to give her a chance to answer our questions.”

“If we have to hold her in contempt, so be it,” added Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a panel member. “I would vote to support that.”

Issa on Wednesday confirmed that a contempt citation is in the mix — particularly if Lerner either doesn’t show up or shows up but refuses to answer questions.

“We want her to come back and answer questions,” Issa said. “We’ll see on contempt.”

What will we see?  A civil contempt charge would lead to another one of those endless court battles the media will not be interested in discussing until they involve a Republican Administration.  A criminal charge would be prosecuted by the Justice Department… which just happens to be run by a fellow named Eric Holder, who has himself been held in contempt by Issa’s committee.  There’s not much else they can do, because the normal machinery of government accountability has been completely short-circuited by this Administration.  Nothing goes anywhere.  Nobody in the press wants to shoot for Pulitzer by digging up all the hidden secrets.  There is no expectation that incompetence or malfeasance will end in disciplinary action or termination.

It sounds as if some Republicans think these previously-undisclosed threats to Lerner’s safety are part of her long-running negotiation to win immunity in exchange for testimony:

Republican lawmakers on the committee, however, don’t like the idea of giving Lerner immunity.

[Lerner lawyer William] Taylor says he has not previously disclosed the threats against Lerner for fear of raising “a lot more people out of the woodwork.” He’s discussing it now, he says, to try to “persuade Mr. Issa” to reconsider.

On the Hill, those pleas have yet to move Republicans to change their plans.

“It’s unfortunate and awful and completely unacceptable to make illegal threats against anyone… but the idea that you’re not held to account for your actions simply because of horrible actions by other individuals is absurd,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican on the panel.

Oversight Republican staff say they’ll be working with the Capitol Police to ensure Lerner’s safety.

But at least one lawmaker is accusing Taylor and Lerner of having ulterior motives than simple safety.

“Nobody should have to go through that. But they can’t have it both ways,” Chaffetz said. “Her attorney also said she’s happy to testify if she has immunity. I think they issue is more they want immunity than the threat of more public exposure.”

Boy, it sure is rough when government power messes up your life, isn’t it, Ms. Lerner?  You could commiserate with Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote about that.

In related scandal news, Senate Democrats today defeated an effort by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to prevent future abuses of power to silence turbulent citizens, so we can expect more of it.  From the Bay Area Citizen:

“Nearly nine months ago, President Obama declared the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups ‘intolerable and inexcusable,’ yet his administration has authored a new rule to specifically limit free speech for many of those groups, which are classified as ‘social welfare’ organizations,” Sen. Cruz stated.

“Free speech is not a partisan issue. The IRS has no business meddling with the First Amendment rights of Americans. Rather than further stifling free speech, the IRS and the Department of Justice should provide the American people with all the facts surrounding the IRS’s targeting of certain organizations based on their political activity. We should all agree the IRS should not be used as a tool for partisan warfare.”

Sen. Cruz’s first amendment would have prohibited an IRS employee from intentionally targeting individuals or groups based on political views. It would have made it a crime for an IRS employee to willfully discriminate against groups based solely on the political beliefs or policy statements held, expressed, or published by that organization.

The second amendment would have amended the tax code to use the bipartisan, independent FEC’s definitions to determine whether an organization is engaging in political activity. The IRS should focus on taxation, rather than determining what is political activity.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee unanimously opposed the amendments, defeating them both.

Heaven forbid we should treat IRS employees who discriminate groups based on their political beliefs as criminals.  They might end up invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid congressional testimony, and then where would we be?