House Committee Votes to Hold Lois Lerner in Contempt of Congress

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. calls on his panel to find former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for her previous refusal to answer questions at two hearings probing on whether tea party and conservative political groups had been targeted for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status, Thursday, April 10, 2014 (AP)

The House Government Oversight and Reform Committee voted 21-12 Thursday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about the agency’s targeting of conservative groups.

“We need Ms. Lerner’s testimony to complete our oversight work,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. “American taxpayers certainly don’t get to plead the Fifth and escape all accountability when the IRS audits them.”

“We are here today for one fundamental reason: To get to the full truth about IRS targeting,” he added. “We cannot abandon our responsibility.”

The committee’s vote comes after Lerner, who last year revealed the IRS’ improper targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, has refused to answer questions regarding the scandal. She resigned from her spot as head of the tax-exempt organizations unit after the targeting came to light and later asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Republican lawmakers, however, said that when Lerner first testified before Congress on May 22, 2013, her opening statement claiming total innocence waived her right to remain silent.

Lerner’s attorney and Democrats disagree with this argument, saying that the contempt charges are flimsy at best.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House committee, cited numerous constitutional scholars who say the Republican case for holding Lerner in contempt is weak. Cummings also said Congress has a poor track record of successfully prosecuting people for refusing to testify.

“I do not want to go back to the shameful era when Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the worst kind of partisan politics,” Cummings said, adding that the vote would mark a “dark day” in Congress’ history.

“I do not direct my comments to my fellow committee members. Instead, my statement is directed to the generations of Americans yet unborn who will learn about this vote in their history books,” he said. “I speak to those who are reading the transcript of today’s proceedings 50 or 100 years from now and are trying to understand why Congress — in the year 2014 — tried to strip away an American citizen’s rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”

Cummings’ Democratic colleagues add that even if Issa’s case for contempt is legal, the committee chairman went about it the wrong way.

Issa maintains that he followed proper procedure.

The matter now head to the full House where it will be taken up by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” Boehner said in a statement Wednesday after the House committee voted to refer Lerner to Attorney General Eric Holder for further investigation.

If the measure passes the House, it will then be referred to the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C.

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This post has been updated.