Former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 5, 2014, during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the the agency's targeting of tea party groups, where she invoked her constitutional right not to incriminate herself (AP)
A House committee voted 23-14 along party lines to refer Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the agency's targeting scandal, to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
The result of the vote, which took place in a closed-door Ways and Means mark-up, means that Attorney General Eric Holder will now be called on to bring Lerner to court.
"This investigation has uncovered serious, unprecedented actions taken by Lois Lerner that deprived conservative groups of their rights under the Constitution. Almost a year ago we learned that the IRS subjected certain groups to extra scrutiny because of their political beliefs. At the time, Lois Lerner shamefully attempted to blame the mistreatment on low-level employees in Cincinnati," committee chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R- Mich.) said in a statement Wednesday.
"The investigation to date has demonstrated that the targeting did not happen until IRS headquarters in D.C. intervened. Today’s action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue. DOJ has a responsibility to act, and Lois Lerner must be held accountable. It is also important that the American people know what really occurred at the IRS, so this powerful agency cannot target American taxpayers ever again," Camp's statement added.
The committee in its letter to Holder accused Lerner of three specific crimes:
- Lerner used her position to improperly influence agency action against only conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law. She showed extreme bias and prejudice towards conservative groups. The letter lays out evidence on how Lerner targeted conservative organization Crossroads GPS as well as other right-leaning groups, while turning a blind eye to similarly-organized liberal groups, like Priorities USA.
- Lerner impeded official investigations by providing misleading statements in response to questions from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).
- Lerner risked exposing, and may actually have disclosed, confidential taxpayer information, in apparent violation of Internal Revenue Code section 6103 by using her personal email to conduct official business.
If Lerner is found guilty of the committee's charges, she could face up to 11 years in prison.
The former head of the IRS' tax exemption unit, Lerner first made headlines when she apologized in 2013 for the agency's inappropriate targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
She later invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, resigned from her position with the agency and has since refused to answer any questions about her possible involvement in the targeting.
Lerner's lawyer, William Taylor III, maintains that his client is innocent.
“Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong,” Tayloy said in a statement. “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.”
But members of the House committee see it differently.
"She was not truthful with Congress," Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said on Fox News after the vote, "and she indeed divulged confidential tax information."
Here's a copy of the letter the House committee sent Eric Holder:
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This story has been updated.