The documentation already is in. The IRS did target conservative groups with invasive questions such as the content of their prayers, and then delayed their tax status requests so they effectively were blocked from participating in the 2012 election cycle.
And there’s no doubt, based on email and other evidence, and the fact that she headed the IRS tax exempt division at the time, that the events creating the controversy swirled around former IRS executive Lois Lerner.
But Democrats on Thursday unleashed accusations that the GOP was engaging in an McCarthyist attempt to “shred the Bill of Rights” by pursuing congressional contempt charges against Lerner, who originally defended herself in the scandal, but then argued that the Fifth Amendment protected her from answering any questions.
House Oversight Committee members voted 21-12 Thursday to adopt a resolution recommending that the House find Lerner in contempt of Congress.
“To call this proceeding in the words just uttered, ‘Orwellian,’ only begins to touch the surface of the process that has characterized this proceeding over the last year,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., charged.
“I have seen so often people hold up the Constitution, saying, ‘I am first a constitutionalist.’ Well, then practice what you preach. Look at that Fifth Amendment and understand what it means,” he said. “Cast the right vote today, which is against this Star Chamber proceeding.”
Connolly cited a McCarthy-era “Quinn” case, where a petitioner summoned to testify before a congressional investigating committee refused to say whether he was or had been a member of the Communist Party. The individual based his refusal on “the First Amendment to the Constitution, supplemented by the Fifth Amendment.”
That landmark Supreme Court case set the precedent for which Lerner and House Democrats claim she has constitutional right to plead the fifth.
“And the Quinn case is dispositive. It deals with precisely what’s in front of us. The fact that someone prefaces their remarks with a protestation of their innocence and then invokes the Fifth Amendment right is addressed many times by court cases, including by the Supreme Court of the United States, in Quinn. And it explicitly says, that does not waive your right,” he argued. “For the majority of this committee, to assert otherwise is conveniently to ignore case law.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., joined Connolly’s argument.
“I said in my opening statement, it’s not about – this is bigger than us. It’s bigger than this moment. It’s bigger than Ms. Lerner. It’s about generations yet unborn,” he said.
Cummings became a central player in the proceedings after Catherine Engelbrecht, of True the Vote, announced plans to submit damning evidence to the Ethics Committee on the depth of his involvement in allegedly targeting her group. Engelbrecht alleges Cummings made the trek to Houston to pay her a personal visit after she filed for tax-exempt status. ” He came knocking at my door,” she said in last February’s congressional testimony.
“When people come before this committee in the future, will we have to read them their rights? Will we have to say to them, give them more like a Miranda warning-type rights statement?” Cummings said.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, fired back, saying, “This is a systematic attack on freedom of speech.”
He pointed out that the act by Lerner to raise a defense to Congress effectively was waiving her right to not answer.
“If this isn’t waiver, then can someone explain to me on the other side what fact pattern constitutes waiver? If you can make 17 separate factual assertions and authenticate a document and say I have done nothing wrong, which is about as broad as any testimony can possibly get – I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve broken no laws, I’ve broken no rules or regulations – I mean, honestly, what testimony could be broader than that? So necessarily our cross-examination should be equally broad, and it would be in a courtroom,” Jordan said.
He said Congress has a legitimate interest in the answers to a number of questions he wants pose with Lerner.
“How many times did you use your personal email? When you mused about applying for a job with an organization connected with the president, were you kidding, Ms. Lerner, or were you serious,” Jordan asked in regards to emails released this week where Lerner expressed excitement at the possibility of getting a job “in the D.C. office” of Organizing for Action, the political action group credited for helping elect Obama.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., echoed the concern.
“Mr. Chairman, I counted 17 separate factual assertions by Ms. Lerner. Not those three little sentences that my colleagues like to cite – 17 separate factual assertions,” he said. “That is a lot of talking for somebody who wants to remain silent! That’s a lot of talking!”
Gowdy, a veteran federal prosecutor for the South Carolina state’s attorney’s office, continued, “If you honestly believe that you can make 17 separate factual assertions and still invoke your right to remain silent, then please tell me what waiver is! Please, tell me what constitutes waiver, if saying 17 separate factual things does not?
“Mr. Chairman, you have an absolute right to remain silent,” said Gowdy, reciting the Miranda verbatim. “No inference or suggestion of guilt may be inferred from your invocation of that right to remain silent. However, if you do testify or take the stand, you will be treated like any other witness and subject to cross-examination.”
He said, “Mr. Chairman, the reason that that phrase is running through my mind is because I heard it for 16 years. It’s being repeated in courtrooms all across this country today, but not for powerful people that work for government, just for everyday folks. Just for everyday witnesses or everyday defendants of petty crimes, not charged with violation of constitutional rights. However, if you testify or take the stand, you will be treated like every other witness.”
He repeated Lerner’s statement, “I have done nothing wrong or broken the laws or broken no IRS rules or regulations.”
Gowdy said, “What I’m saying is we should have the right to cross-examine her on that testimony.
“Because I’d like to ask her, when you said we need a plan, who is ‘we’ and what plan are you referring to? When she said we need to be careful that it’s not perceived as political, who is ‘we’ and what are you concerned about the perception of politics for? What are you fearful of, Mr. Lerner? Who?”
He continued, “She said, I think we really need to do a project. Again, Ms. Lerner, who is ‘we’ and what project are you referring to? That is a legitimate question, and every brother and sister at the bar on the other side of the aisle would ask that question on cross-examination if given the opportunity. Can you imagine, Mr. Chairman? Can you imagine a fact pattern when somebody takes the stand and says, I didn’t rob the bank, but I’m not going to answer why my fingerprints are on the demand note, and I’m not going to tell you why I’m on the surveillance footage with a gun in my hand, and I’m not going to tell you why the dye pack blew up in my car? I’m just going to tell you I didn’t rob the bank.”
Gowdy said that’s not how the American system works.
As reported by WND Wednesday, the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, of which Cummings is the ranking minority member, released emails that show Cummings and his staff communicated with Lerner while the IRS allegedly targeted True the Vote for abuse.
“Today’s committee action reveals what we knew all along. Partisan politics and the weaponization of government against opponents of this Administration is real and continues. Elijah Cummings has blocked the IRS abuse investigation all along. We now see clearly that two branches of government have colluded to target and silence private citizens. America has come to a tipping point,” Engelbrecht said.
Engelbrecht’s attorney, Cleta Mitchell, told WND/Radio America in an interview Thursday that President Obama clearly inspired the mistreatment of conservative groups with his public comments.
“Let’s not forget where this IRS scandal began. People say, ‘Oh, you’re looking for a smoking gun and there’s no smoking gun.’ Yeah, there’s a smoking gun. There are about a dozen smoking guns. They’re just lying all over the streets of Washington, D.C. You had the president of the United States going around the country giving speeches, attacking private citizens groups and demanding that something be done about them. And why should something be done about them? Because they disagree with him,” Mitchell said.
She added, “Then you had 31 House members and nine senators, all Democrats, writing to the IRS and demanding the IRS ‘do something’ to crack down on these conservative groups.”
Listen to the interview with Mitchell below:
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. issued a statement saying that if the House takes up and passes the resolution, "the matter will be referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which statute requires he take to a grand jury."
The House Ways and Means Committee recommended Attorney General Eric Holder prosecute Lerner on three charges, one related to the violation of privacy for allegedly using government property to release confidential private taxpayer information and the other for allegedly using her influence to improperly influence IRS action against tea party groups, possibly for political purposes.