WASHINGTON — The former Internal Revenue Service official at the heart of the controversy over the agency's targeting of conservative groups once again refused to answer questions at a House hearing Wednesday amid signs that a congressional investigation into the affair may be stalling.
Lois Lerner headed the IRS division that improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. On Wednesday she was recalled to testify before the House Oversight Committee for the second time in a year.
But just like the first time, she declined to answer questions about her involvement. Appearing with her lawyer, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at least nine times in response to questions by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Later, Lerner's lawyer told reporters she didn't testify because "we completely lost confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the forum."
"This matter has become polarized," said the lawyer, William W. Taylor III. "It is completely partisan. There was no possibility, in my view, that Ms. Lerner would be given a fair opportunity to speak, to answer questions or to tell the truth."
Taylor said the whole ordeal, which began last May when Lerner first disclosed the targeting at a Washington law conference, has been unsettling for his client. Lerner has received a total six death threats, by email and regular mail, Taylor said. They have been turned over to the FBI, he said.
After Wednesday's hearing, Issa suggested his committee's investigation may become stalled without Lerner's testimony.
"At this point, roads lead to Ms. Lerner," Issa said. Without her testimony, he said, "it may dead-end at Ms. Lerner."
Two other congressional committees, the Justice Department and the IRS's inspector general are also investigating. But to date, none has publicly released evidence that anyone outside the IRS directed the targeting or knew about it while it was happening.
"There still has not been any evidence of political motivation nor any evidence of the White House having anything to do with it," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
Taylor said Lerner was recently interviewed at length by officials from the Justice Department and the inspector general's office. He said Lerner agreed to be questioned by investigators "without conditions."
Last year, the IRS' inspector general released a yearlong audit that found agents had improperly targeted conservative political groups for additional and sometimes onerous scrutiny when those groups applied for tax-exempt status.
The IRS watchdog blamed ineffective management by senior IRS officials for allowing it to continue for nearly two years during the 2010 and 2012 elections.
IRS agents were reviewing tea party groups' applications to determine the amount of political activity the groups were engaged in. Under IRS rules, groups applying for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)4 of the tax code can engage in politics but it cannot be their primary mission.
Since the revelations became public, much of the agency's leadership has been replaced and the IRS has proposed new rules for handling applications from so-called social welfare organizations.
Conservatives and some liberal groups complain that the proposed rules would further limit political activity by tax-exempt groups. The IRS has received more than 140,000 comments on the proposed rules, by far a record for any proposed regulation, the agency said.
After Lerner declined to answer questions at Wednesday's hearing, the proceedings quickly devolved into political bickering between Issa and Cummings.
Issa quickly adjourned the hearing despite attempts by Cummings to make a statement. At one point, Issa said, "Shut it down," and Cummings' microphone was turned off.
Taylor said the chaotic end to the hearing showed why Lerner didn't want to testify before the committee.
"I think she felt that what happened at the end of the hearing today was complete and utter justification for the decision that she made," Taylor said.
Lerner was placed on administrative leave last spring, a few days after she first refused to answer questions at a congressional hearing. She retired in September, ending a 34-year career in federal government.
"I don't think she feels that she did anything wrong at any step along the way but nobody in my position or hers has ever not looked back and wondered whether there wasn't something they could have done differently," Taylor said.
Issa and other Republicans on the committee say that Lerner had effectively waived her constitutional right not to testify at last year's hearing because she made an opening statement in which she said she had done nothing wrong. Technically, Wednesday's hearing was a continuation of that hearing.
Issa said the committee will consider whether to vote to hold her in contempt. Cummings said he does not believe Lerner waived her constitutional rights.