WASHINGTON -- The official who disclosed that the Internal Revenue Service had used inappropriate criteria to examine groups seeking tax-exempt status insisted Wednesday that she did nothing wrong, but also declined to answer questions from lawmakers, saying she did not want to incriminate herself in any future criminal proceedings.
Lois Lerner, who led the IRS tax-exempt unit at the scandal's center, invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during an appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saying panel members had already falsely accused her of providing false information to Congress.
"I have not done anything wrong," she said. "I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations. And I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee." On the advice of counsel, she said, she would not answer further questions.
Before dismissing her, the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Ms. Lerner to review a transcript of an interview she gave to the Treasury Department watchdog as part of an investigation into the matter. She confirmed the document's contents but declined to answer further questions.
Mr. Issa then dismissed Ms. Lerner and her attorney against the objections of Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who said she had waived her right to invoke the Fifth Amendment by making an opening statement. "She ought to stand here and answer our questions," he added later, as people in the audience applauded.
When the hearing concluded six hours later, Mr. Issa announced that he might recall Ms. Lerner before the committee and review whether she waived her Fifth Amendment rights by giving an opening statement and answering questions about the document. Accordingly, he said the hearing "stands in recess, not adjourned."
Ms. Lerner's attorney had informed the Oversight Committee on Tuesday that she would invoke the Fifth Amendment, but committee aides said she was required to appear anyway.
Ms. Lerner was the official who revealed May 10, during an American Bar Association conference in Washington, that employees in the IRS's tax-exempt unit in Cincinnati had improperly scrutinized applications from dozens of organizations. The revelation, which came before the agency had revealed the information to lawmakers or the news media, provoked bipartisan outrage and has fueled national debate about the federal government's role and reach.
In her opening statement, Ms. Lerner noted that she has been a federal employees for 34 years, holding positions at the Justice Department, the Federal Elections Commission and the IRS. She said she became director of the IRS's tax-exempt unit in 2006, making her responsible for a budget of almost $100 million and 900 employees, who process more than 60,000 applications for tax-exempt status annually. "I am very proud of the work that I have done in government," she said.
Some Republicans said Ms. Lerner's opening statement could be interpreted as a "subject-matter waiver," meaning she had made factual statements about the case that then opened the door for the committee to ask her for further details. But to hold her in contempt, the committee would need a federal judge to rule in favor of the move.
Ms. Lerner's lawyer, William Taylor, adamantly disagreed with suggestions that his client had opened herself up to contempt charges. "The law is clear that a witness does not waive her Fifth Amendment rights not to testify as to facts by asserting that she is innocent of the wrongdoing with which she is accused," he wrote in an email.
Once Ms. Lerner left the hearing, lawmakers turned to Douglas Shulman, the Bush administration appointee who led the IRS during President Barack Obama's first term. He was joined at the witness table by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, and Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin.