WASHINGTON — 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 had applied for tax-exempt status since 2010. She was subpoenaed to testify 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 last week after the IRS targeting was revealed, 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, Republican of California, 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 that agents had improperly targeted political groups vehemently opposing President Obama’s policies.
But former commissioner Douglas Shulman said he did not tell his superiors in the Treasury Department nor members of Congress.
And he would not 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 earlier this month. 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, 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 committee Tuesday. So did acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who was forced to resign last week.