The House oversight committee is treading cautiously as it decides how to move ahead with its investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, saying it will consider trading immunity to Lois Lerner in exchange for testimony about how her bureau singled out tea party groups' nonprofit status applications for extra scrutiny.
Ms. Lerner's lawyer said Wednesday that she would testify to Congress if lawmakers were willing to erase any legal jeopardy.
"If granted immunity, she has no choice but to testify ... the essence of an order conferring immunity is that it commands her to testify," attorney William W. Taylor III said in an email.
But House Republicans have not yet decided to go that far.
Ms. Lerner was called to testify in May and after making an opening statement declaring herself innocent, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Some in the GOP say that her statement effectively waived her right against self-incrimination. Last week, the committee voted along party lines, 22-17, to approve a resolution saying she had, in fact, waived her rights.
Still, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has not made a decision on how to proceed on the matter when Congress returns from its weeklong July Fourth vacation.
"The committee is entitled to Ms. Lerner's full and truthful testimony without further conditions," said Frederick Hill, a committee spokesman. "If, however, Ms. Lerner's attorney is interested in discussing limited immunity, the committee will listen. The oversight committee and Way and Means Committee continue to jointly gather evidence and interview witnesses in the targeting investigation."
The matter could go all the way to the full chamber, which could be asked to vote on a subpoena compelling Ms. Lerner to testify by granting her immunity, Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor also told Politico this week that he is not afraid of any potential threat of contempt charges and that there is "no danger under any circumstances of her going to jail."
In addition to congressional inquiries, the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the matter.
Starting in 2010, the IRS began flagging groups applying for tax-exempt status with "tea party," "patriot," or "9/12 Project" in their names for additional scrutiny, according to an audit by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.
Ms. Lerner tried to stop the Cincinnati field office's targeting of tea party and other right-leaning groups by directing specialists in 2011 to broaden their criteria so that it did not appear partisan, Mr. George wrote.
Yet, the audit says the behavior resurfaced and had to be fixed once more in May 2012.
Ms. Lerner apologized at a May event with the American Bar Association for burdening the conservative groups from early 2010 to May 2012, an admission that set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill.
The entire issue resurfaced last week when Mr. George said that while some liberal groups were given extra scrutiny by the tax agency, they were not subjected to the same invasive queries as tea party groups.
Democrats, who have argued that the problem at the IRS stems from campaign finance rules more than political bias, questioned Mr. George's latest letter, after he said earlier that his audit wasn't tasked with looking at how the IRS handled progressive groups.
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