WASHINGTON -- The House Ways and Means Committee took the scandal over the Internal Revenue Service's botched scrutiny of political nonprofits to a new level Wednesday, voting along party lines to ask Attorney General Eric Holder to bring a criminal case against former IRS official Lois Lerner.
Lerner ran the agency's divisitaon in charge of weighing the tax-exempt status of so-called social welfare groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. It was found to have improperly used the names of organizations -- mostly tea party groups, but some liberal ones -- to target which groups would receive extra scrutiny.
In a press conference after the vote, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, did not identify what laws Lerner had allegedly broken, although a detailed letter to the Department of Justice released by his committee suggested that she might have interfered in the review process for Karl Rove-linked Crossroads GPS and might have violated the constitutional rights of taxpayers. Camp said he would leave to Justice Department investigators the question of what crimes might have been committed.
Still, the 97-page letter and supporting documents show that Lerner was especially concerned about Crossroads GPS and the $70 million it was spending on politics at the time.
After complaints about Crossroads GPS came from the watchdog groups Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, she wrote an email to the head of the Texas-based unit that examines tax-exempt organizations, noting that Crossroads had not been audited in two years. "I reviewed the information last night and thought the allegations in the documents were really damning, so wondered why we hadn't done something with the org," Lerner wrote.
She also suggested that an application for tax-exempt status from Crossroads GPS was on the way to being denied.
Camp said Lerner's communication showed improper influence. He also pointed to emails Lerner sent from her personal address to addresses outside the IRS system, suggesting she might have violated laws against revealing taxpayer information if the recipients, who were also IRS workers, revealed them to other people.
Camp noted that the watchdog groups had also complained about liberal nonprofits' tax-exempt status and said that his committee's work found no evidence that Lerner was concerned about the latter nonprofits. Other documents, however, have emerged through the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that showed progressive groups were sometimes singled out by the IRS as well.
Lerner's attorney, William Taylor, said in a statement that his client had done nothing wrong. He suggested a political motivation for the Wednesday vote.
"The timing of today’s vote is odd. We have not heard from the House Ways and Means Committee. Nor has the Committee previously issued a report of its findings," he said. "This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain. Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong. She did not violate any law or regulation. She did not mislead Congress. She did not interfere with the rights of any organization to a tax exemption. Those are the facts."
A Justice Department spokesman released a statement that suggested the Ways and Means Committee action didn't change much. “As the Department has repeatedly confirmed, there is already an active, ongoing investigation into the IRS’s handling of applications by tax-exempt organizations," the statement said. "It remains a high priority of the Department.”
Democrats slammed the vote as a political stunt, pointing to the ongoing Justice Department probe.
"We should have done it another way. There was another way," said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee. "Essentially, I think this is a further effort to politicize this process."
Democrats suggested that the easier, more reasonable path would have been for the committee to simply forward any new information it had found to DOJ investigators.
The Ways and Means action is entirely separate from the latest effort of the House Oversight Committee, which intends to vote Thursday on a report asking the full House of Representatives to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for twice asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Ultimately, no court has ever upheld an effort to hold someone in contempt for asserting the right against self-incrimination -- an effort that was last tried nine times during the McCarthy era. Camp, at least, didn't seem to think much of that effort, led by Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), although Camp blamed Lerner's lack of testimony in part for inspiring his own committee's vote.
"If Lois Lerner would come forward and testify, we might know the answers, but because she invoked her constitutional right, and legitimately so, we have had to resort to getting her emails and documents," Camp said.
Although charges of politicization have flown on both sides, Camp's lengthy document doesn't contain any assertion of White House involvement in Lerner's actions. The political context is not far from the surface, however. The last time the Ways and Means Committee voted to release taxpayer information -- as it had to do in order to send its letter to the Justice Department -- was in 1974 when the committee revealed President Richard Nixon's tax returns.
Camp said the situation warranted such a dramatic step.
"It is unprecedented what happened to Americans in the IRS," Camp said. "We have a right and an obligation to protect the American people. And we have a right to oversee the IRS and hold them to account for their actions."
See video below of Rep. Camp addressing Lois Lerner's invoking of the Fifth Amendment.