WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service official who first disclosed that the agency had targeted conservative groups, and in doing so ignited a controversy that has ensnared the White House, denied Wednesday that she had ever provided false information to Congress. She then invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
As Lois Lerner appeared under subpoena before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she sternly told her questioners that allegations that she had misled Congress in previous testimony were false.
“I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws,” said Lerner, who leads the IRS’s division on tax-exempt organizations. “I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.”
After she refused to say anything further, despite attempts by Representative Darrell Issa of California, the committee’s chairman, to persuade her otherwise, Issa, a Republican, dismissed her and her attorney from the hearing. That upset some Republicans, who said that Lerner should not be let go so quickly.
“You don’t get to tell your side of the story and then not be subjected to cross examination,” Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina challenged her. “She ought to stand here and answer our questions.”
Issa made a second attempt to persuade her to change her mind. But when she declined, he dismissed her again.
On May 10, when Lerner first apologized for the targeting, she told reporters that she had learned of the improprieties from news media reports in early 2012. But a Treasury inspector general’s audit indicated that she knew far earlier than that and tried to broaden the scope of the targeting efforts to include liberal as well as conservative groups.
Members of both parties used the hearing to offer unsparing criticism of the IRS and the other agency officials who sat before them, saying that revelations that the agency had singled out certain politically minded groups were inexcusable. Also appearing before the committee were Neal S. Wolin, the deputy secretary of the Treasury Department; J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration; and Douglas Shulman, a former commissioner of the IRS.
One Democrat, Representative Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts, even raised the threat of appointing a special prosecutor if Congress continues to feel that the IRS is not being straightforward.
“We know where that will lead. It will lead to a special prosecutor,” he said. “There will be hell to pay if that’s the route we choose to go down.”