WASHINGTON — House Republicans formally asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday to begin a criminal investigation of Lois Lerner, the former IRS official caught up in the scandal over political targeting of Tea Party groups.
The Ways and Means Committee’s 23-14 vote along party lines was the latest move by Republicans to refocus attention on the IRS controversy, and it was the first of two actions the House is expected to take this week to demand that federal prosecutors look more deeply into Lerner's conduct.
In a letter to Holder, Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the committee’s chairman, outlined what he said was “willful misconduct” by Lerner, and evidence that suggests “she may have violated multiple federal criminal statutes.”
Calling for a criminal inquiry is a highly unusual step for the Ways and Means Committee, which spends most of its time on issues related to the tax code. Both Republicans and Democrats said they knew of no precedent for a criminal referral from the committee.
Camp defended the vote, saying that the way the IRS had targeted conservative groups was itself unprecedented. “This is so serious that it was an important step for the committee to take,” he said. “We have a right and an obligation to protect the American people, and we have a right to oversee the IRS and to hold them to account.”
Democrats dismissed the vote as the political machinations of a party desperate to paint the Obama administration as corrupt. Lerner’s lawyer, saying his client had not broken any laws or misled Congress, called the action meaningless.
“This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain,” said her lawyer, William W. Taylor.
The Justice Department is conducting a review into whether the IRS gave improper scrutiny to conservative groups when it was vetting them for tax-exempt status, leading Democrats to question why another inquiry is necessary.