By Jerome Corsi and Garth Kant
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The former head of the IRS tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, was interviewed by Department of Justice investigators in conjunction with the agency’s discrimination against conservative groups, according to the lead attorney for a number of grass-roots organizations that claim they were targeted.
Cleta Mitchell said in a panel at the CPAC conservative annual conference that she learned Thursday that the DOJ had questioned Lerner sometime during the past six months.
Lerner, however, as WND reported refused to answer questions posed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, at a hearing Wednesday, invoking her Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate herself.
Issa told WND after the hearing that Congress could pursue contempt charges against Lerner.
Mitchell, meanwhile, sounded as if Congress would not be able to get to the bottom of the matter.
“We are going to have to take matters into our own hands – private investigations and rewards for whistleblowers,” she said in the CPAC panel discussion Friday.
Mitchell also disclosed that the IRS quietly released new rules this week that will require all applicants for 501(c)4 status to answer the invasive questions to which the tea party and conservative groups have been subjected for the past several years.
She traced the start of IRS targeting of conservatives to the success of the tea party in returning the House to Republicans in 2010 and the Citizens United Supreme Court case.
Then-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who was chairman of Senate Finance Committee, and other congressional Democrats began urging the IRS to do something to keep conservative groups from getting tax-exempt access to public funding, Mitchell said.
The idea was to silence conservative civilian organizations.
Christine O’Donnell, a tea-party candidate in 2008 for the U.S. Senate seat, said that on the day she announced she was running, “the Delaware IRS illegally accessed my tax records, and a tax lien was attached erroneously to a property I no longer owned.”
“If it happened to me, then everyone in this room could be a target of the IRS,” she said.
“The goal of the political left is to harass us and force us off the battlefield,” O’Donnell asserted.
O’Donnell said the IRS is now “using rules regarding taxpayer confidentiality not to protect taxpayers but as an excuse for not releasing information about IRS agents’ inappropriate or unlawful activity.”
WND reported the IRS has proposed new rules that would limit the ability of conservative 501(c)4 groups to participate in the mid-term elections this November as they had in 2010.
A May 2013 review of IRS tax-exempt applications found that not a single group with “tea party” or “patriots” in the title was approved by the IRS after February 2010, while the IRS approved applications made by dozens of progressive groups in the same period of time.
Mitchell said she knows of four conservative groups that are the targets of an IRS attempt to look into donors.
“This should be privileged information, not available to the IRS,” Mitchell said. “Then the IRS turns around and uses ‘confidential taxpayer information’ Section 6103 to protect not the taxpayer but the IRS agents that inappropriately accessed taxpayer records.”
O’Donnell said she had a meeting on Capitol Hill earlier in the day in which she learned that “congressional committees can only do so much” about the IRS matter.
“Sooner or later it has to become a criminal investigation to get farther,” she said, announcing her group has begun to raise money to hire investigators and press for criminal investigations to begin officially.
Mitchell said the investigation has been going on since May and the IRS announced only today that it will release Lerner emails that prove “the IRS has been stonewalling congressional investigations.”
Mitchell said the new IRS rules would mean that in even-numbered years, CPAC could not have speakers appear who were candidates for office.
“This is just one example of the regulations issued the day after Thanksgiving,” she said.
She said she and her colleagues have worked hard to generate 146,000 comments on the regulations.
“But guess what the IRS did this week?” she asked. “At 4:55 p.m. on Tuesday, the IRS buried into a newsletter that from now on all applicants for c-4 status will have to answer all the questions the tea party has been subjected to for the last few years.”
O’Donnell asked: “If an IRS agent can go into my private record without getting fired or facing jail time, then what is going to happen if you announce you are running for office and a government employee can access your records under Obamacare?”
Mitchell said she believes the IRS has accessed Federal Election Commission records of donors to conservative campaigns and beginning audits.
At the congressional hearing Wednesday, Issa adjourned after asking seven questions and receiving no answers from Lerner. After each question, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
Most of the questions asked for an explanation of the emails concerning IRS handing of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, including one in which Lerner wrote: “Tea Party Matter very dangerous.”
In an interview after the hearing, Issa told WND his committee will continue its investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups without Lerner’s testimony.
WND asked Issa if there was any hope of hearing from Lerner.
“No, I have exhausted any possibility of her speaking, at this point,” he said. “We have attempted to, in multiple ways, including making it clear that we could do a one-week delay. They changed their mind and declined that.”
Asked by another reporter if he was considering charging Lerner with contempt of Congress, Issa said it’s “certainly something that has to be considered.”
“At this point, we’ve been looking for the truth. We had hoped that Miss Lerner, particularly in light of so many direct emails that are now with us in evidence … we had hoped to get answers from her,” Issa said. “We’ll continue to seek answers from other areas. But, why did she ask for Crossroads GPS’ application to be scrutinized by name? We probably will not know that, because that is something that is only in her mind.”
When Issa adjourned the hearing, the committee’s ranking Democratic Party member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, tried to assert privilege to speak. He proceeded to make a statement instead of asking a question, however, and Issa had Cummings’ microphone turned off.
“I am a member of the House of Representatives, and I am tired of this,” Cummings declared in an angry voice.
For several minutes after Issa closed the hearing, Cummings read his statement into a closed microphone as Lerner sat at the witness table listening.
“You cannot conduct a one-sided investigation and get away with it,” Cummings shouted, addressing his remark to Issa.
Issa explained to reporters afterward that Cummings was not directing questions to the witness and the committee had already adjourned.
The chairman said he did recognize Cummings when the Democrat said he had a question. But the Maryland congressman went into an "opening statement," Issa explained, and opening statements had already been completed.
"The fact is, Mr. Cummings came to make a make a point of his objections to the process we were going through," Issa said. "He was actually slandering me at the moment that the mics did go off by claiming that this had not been a real investigation."
Issa asserted it had been a "bipartisan investigation by multiple committees in which we had testimony in multiple hearings ... in which it was very clear that there had been targeting of conservative groups."
Waiving her right
In her May appearance, Lerner made a statement declaring her innocence before invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions.
The panel voted June 28 that by making a statement, she waived her Fifth Amendment privilege.
Prior to Wednesday's hearing, Lerner initially said she would only testify in exchange for a grant of immunity. Subsequently, in a series of emails between Lerner’s attorney and committee staff, she agreed to testify openly but requested a one-week delay for the March 5 hearing.
Despite IRS and Treasury Department foot-dragging in response to an August 2013 subpoena, the House Oversight Committee determined that Lerner’s division continued targeting amid increased pressure from President Obama and Democrats in Congress to take action to limit conservative 501(c)4 groups in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.