IRS official to take the 5th at House hearing

Wednesday - 5/22/2013, 4:00am EDT

former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testifies on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2013, before the Senate Finance Committee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) practice of targeting applicants for tax-exempt status based on political leanings. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

ALAN FRAM
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Summoned by Congress, a key figure in the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups plans to invoke her constitutional right against self-incrimination and decline to testify at a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

Lois Lerner heads the IRS division that singled out conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns. She was subpoenaed to testify Wednesday before the House oversight committee.

But in a letter to committee leaders, Lerner's lawyer said she would refuse to testify because of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Among the harsher Republican comments after the IRS targeting was revealed last week, House Speaker John Boehner said he wanted to know, "Who's going to jail over this scandal?" Lerner's Washington lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said Tuesday that his client "has not committed any crime or made any misrepresentation, but under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course."

Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the subpoena stands, raising the possibility of a public spectacle in which Lerner would decline to answer question after question.

News of her plans came on the same day the agency's former commissioner said he first learned in the spring of 2012 -- in the heat of the presidential campaign -- that agents had improperly targeted political groups that vehemently opposed President Barack Obama's policies.

But former Commissioner Douglas Shulman said he didn't tell higher ups in the Treasury Department and he didn't tell members of Congress.

And he wouldn't apologize for it.

"I had a partial set of facts, and I knew that the inspector general was going to be looking into it, and I knew that it was being stopped," Shulman told the Senate Finance Committee in his first public comments on the matter. "Sitting there then and sitting here today, I think I made the right decision, which is to let the inspector general get to the bottom of it, chase down all the facts and then make his findings public."

Lerner has emerged as a central figure in the controversy because she learned in June 2011 that IRS agents were singling out groups with "Tea Party" or "Patriots" in their applications for further scrutiny, according to a report by the agency's inspector general. She ordered the initial tea party criteria to be scrapped, but it later evolved to include groups that promoted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the report said.

Shulman, however, said this information wasn't relayed up the chain of command until a year later.

"I agree this is an issue that when someone spotted it, they should have brought it up the chain," Shulman said. "And they didn't. I don't know why."

Lerner is also the IRS official who first disclosed the targeting of tea party groups at a legal conference last week. A career civil servant who has run the division since late 2005, Lerner has not been disciplined for her role, IRS officials said.

Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, left the IRS in November when his five-year term ended. His testimony makes him the top official to publicly acknowledge knowing before the presidential election that tea party groups had been targeted.

Ineffective management allowed agents in a Cincinnati office to improperly target conservative groups for more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, according to a report by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

But George said he found no evidence that Washington directed the targeting.

George also testified before Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. So did acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller. Miller, a top deputy under Shulman, took over the agency when Shulman left in November. Last week, Obama forced Miller to resign.

Several senators were less than pleased with the testimony of both Shulman and Miller.

"I found it unsatisfying," Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said after the hearing. "I think a lot of information's not getting out, a lot of questions not answered."

Shulman said he was briefed by Miller "sometime in the spring of 2012" that tea party groups were being singled out for additional scrutiny. But Shulman said he didn't realize the scope of the issue until the inspector general issued his report last week.

"What I knew was not the full set of facts in this report," Shulman said. "What I knew sometime in the spring of 2012 was that there was a list that was being used, knew that the word "tea party" was on the list, didn't know what other words were on the list, didn't know the scope and severity of this, didn't know if groups that were pulled in were groups that would have been pulled in anyway."