The woman at the center of the IRS scandal refused to testify to Congress on Wednesday, but House Republicans said Lois Lerner botched her attempt to invoke her right against self-incrimination and said they likely will force her to come back and explain why the agency targeted conservative political groups.
Ms. Lerner’s refusal to testify shifted attention to her onetime boss, former Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman, who apologized to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee but refused to take responsibility, leaving furious lawmakers warning that the Internal Revenue Service could end up facing a special prosecutor.
Meanwhile, the top Treasury Department official who oversees the IRS said the agency’s behavior was “unacceptable” but denied any responsibility.
At the outset, a Democrat on the panel warned that there would be “hell to pay” if witnesses withheld information or danced around lawmakers’ questions.
“We know where that will lead. It will lead to a special prosecutor,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts.
Ms. Lerner, director of tax-exempt organizations for the IRS, began the witnesses’ testimony by denying that she acted improperly, and then invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“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 false information to this or any other congressional committee.”
Her attorney said before the hearing that she would decline to answer questions because the Justice Department announced a potential criminal investigation.
Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, dismissed Ms. Lerner from the witness table, but Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, objected, saying that since she made a brief statement in her defense, that effectively waived her right to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
“She just testified. She just waived her Fifth Amendment right to privilege,” said Mr. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor. “You don’t get to tell your side of the story and then not be subjected to cross-examination. That’s not the way it works. … She ought to stand here and answer our questions.”
Hours later, at the end of the hearing, Mr. Issa said Mr. Gowdy may be correct and that the committee may compel Ms. Lerner to return. He said he would review the legal situation, and he recessed the hearing rather than adjourning it as a way of preserving the option of bringing her back.
He was stronger in comments to Politico, a paper that covers Capitol Hill, saying he believes Ms. Lerner did waive her rights.
“When I asked her questions from the very beginning, I did so so she could assert her rights prior to any statement,” Mr. Issa said. “She chose not to do so — so she waived.”
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, according to an audit by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.
Yet the audit says the behavior resurfaced and had to be fixed once more in May 2012.