Lawmakers expressed both anger and bewilderment that IRS leaders had not told Congress sooner about indications that the tax agency had improperly singled out conservatives and Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
A highly anticipated hearing by the top investigative committee in the Republican-controlled House delivered on the drama that was expected. Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the division accused of wrongdoing, invoked her Fifth Amendment right against testifying, and defiantly asserted her innocence.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws," she said. "I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and I have not provided any false information to this or any other committee."
IRS Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner addresses a House committee during a hearing on the agency's targeting of political groups.
But her refusal to testify left the hearing on an uncertain note. Republicans only recessed the meeting – versus formally adjourning it – and threatened to re-call Lerner, whom they asserted had waived her Fifth Amendment privileges by making her brief statement.
"I am looking into the possibility of recalling her and insist she answer questions in light of a waiver,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee.
But much of lawmakers' ire was trained on the IRS leadership for failing to disclose any indication of IRS wrongdoing to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose inquiry into the matter prompted an inspector general inquiry into targeting of conservative groups. Both Democrats and Republicans voiced outrage that Douglas Shulman, the commissioner of the IRS during much of the abuses, did not tell lawmakers that an internal IRS investigation had suggested improper action by the IRS to single out conservative groups.
"At that point, I didn’t have anything concrete," Shulman responded. "I didn’t have a full set of facts to come back to Congress or the committee with."
His answered angered Democrats as much as Republicans.
"If you didn’t know, you were derelict in your duty," said Issa.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. holds up a document as he speaks to IRS official Lois Lerner on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 22, 2013, during the committee's hearing to investigate the extra scrutiny IRS gave to Tea Party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status.
"You misled Congress. Make no question about it … When you learned there was a list, you did nothing," said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who raised the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor in his opening remarks. "You abdicated your responsibility and you allowed Congress to proceed under your prior information that was false, that was untrue."
And for the first time, the IRS inspector general who generated the report that laid out the explosive allegations, J. Russell George, came under scrutiny from lawmakers. Issa pressed George as to why his office hadn't told Congress about indications of targeting at an earlier point during the investigation.
"I think it would behoove all of us to make sure that accurate information is given to Congress so we don’t act precipitously," George responded in reference to his office's actions.
The tense exchanges followed a somewhat explosive opening to the hearing, in which Lerner refused to answer lawmakers’ questions. But she delivered a brief statement explaining her role at the IRS and denying any wrongdoing.
That statement angered committee conservatives, who said that Lerner had essentially offered testimony, and thus had waived her ability to invoke her constitutional right to not testify. Issa dismissed Lerner nonetheless, but warned that his panel might again seek her testimony in the future. Following her dismissal, Lerner’s role remained largely absent through the questioning of the other witnesses.
The scrutiny of the IRS witnesses was characteristic of a hearing that focused far more on the actions of the agency and the subsequent investigation than whether the IRS came under undue influence from the Obama administration to single out conservatives.
The one administration witness, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, denied that he had ever directed the targeting of conservative groups. "Absolutely not, congresswoman," he said in response to a question on that matter, one of the few questions he faced during the hearing.
While Republicans have insinuated for much of the last two weeks that the IRS abuses were part of a "culture of intimidation" within the Obama administration, that line of inquiry generally took a backseat during Wednesday's hearing. (By contrast, Republicans focused on finding ties to Obama much more during a hearing last Friday by the House Ways and Means Committee and a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee.)
An exception to that came when Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, linked the Obama administration’s assertion that the IRS abuses were limited to rogue employees to its initial assertion following last year’s terror attack in Benghazi that it was the outgrowth of a spontaneous protest. (This assertion about Benghazi was eventually proved wrong, and has become another point of contention between the White House and congressional Republicans.)
This story was originally published on Wed May 22, 2013 10:41 AM EDT