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House panel to compel Lerner to testify on IRS targeting of tea party

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

House Republicans announced Tuesday that they are recalling Lois G. Lerner, the former IRS employee at the center of the tea party targeting scandal, to testify to Congress next week, saying she has critical information.

Ms. Lerner asserted her right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination at a hearing last year, but at the time she also proclaimed her innocence. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said she effectively waived her Fifth Amendment rights with that claim and made her open to being compelled to testify.

"Ms. Lerner's testimony remains critical to the committee's investigation," Mr. Issa said in a letter to her attorney, William W. Taylor III. "Documents and testimony obtained by the committee show that she played a significant role in scrutinizing applications for tax exempt status from conservative organizations."

Mr. Taylor didn't respond to a message seeking comment late Tuesday after Mr. Issa's letter was made public.

The letter was sent as the Internal Revenue Service situation escalated on other fronts.

The White House issued a veto threat saying President Obama would reject a House bill, scheduled for a vote this week, that would stop the IRS from writing rules cracking down further on nonprofit groups that get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the House passed two other bills that would rein in the IRS by giving it a one-year time limit to complete all audits and forcing the agency to be more responsive when taxpayers ask written questions.

The IRS came under scrutiny after an internal audit last year found that it improperly targeted tea party groups for special scrutiny in their nonprofit status applications. The tax agency held up a number of those applications for years.

Ms. Lerner was at the center of much of that scrutiny, according to emails that have been turned over to Congress showing that she took a deep interest in trying to prevent nonprofits from engaging in political activity.

In a dramatic hearing in May, just weeks after the targeting was revealed, Ms. Lerner appeared before the oversight committee and refused to testify.

Republicans initially seemed prepared to excuse her, but Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and a former prosecutor, raised an objection saying her statement of innocence amounted to waiving her right to remain silent.

Democrats on the committee objected, but Republicans decided that reading was accurate and said they reserved the right to recall Ms. Lerner.

Ms. Lerner retired from the IRS in September.

Ever since the audit revealed IRS targeting, the issue has roiled Washington.

Democrats say that while the agency may have overstepped its bounds in asking improper questions, there is no evidence that the targeting was politically motivated.

They said the problem is the rules, not the agency. They argue that too many groups — particularly conservative-leaning organizations — have formed as nonprofits under a part of the tax code that allows them to do some political activity while shielding their donors from public disclosure.

"The lack of clarity of these standards has resulted in confusion and difficulty administering the code, as well as delays in the processing of applications for tax-exempt status," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in its veto threat.

The IRS has said it is trying to write rules that would rein in political activities such as voter registration drives, candidate guides and other political activities by groups organized as 501(c )(4) nonprofits.

Those are the rules the White House veto threat was designed to protect.

Congressional Republicans have declared those rules a threat to free speech and have rallied to stop them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, tried to block them in a spending bill this year, and House Republicans plan a vote this week on a bill that would put the rules on pause for a year.

The IRS, in a letter Tuesday to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, said it is paying attention to the more than 70,000 comments — almost all of them vehemently opposed — that have been submitted.

"Treasury and IRS will carefully consider the issues raised in the comments received before issuing any further guidance," Treasury Assistant Secretary Alastair M. Fitzpayne said in the letter.

In the letter, the Treasury Department hinted that it might consider imposing the political restrictions on other nonprofits, not just those organized as social welfare groups.

Also Tuesday, the House passed two bills designed to rein in the IRS. Both passed by voice vote.

One of those bills would give the IRS a one-year limit to finish audits, require the agency to respond to any taxpayer's written request, and force the IRS to let taxpayers know when their information is shared with another federal, state or local government agency.

The second bill specifically resists the tea party targeting by prohibiting the IRS from asking taxpayers any questions about their religious or political beliefs.

"We've got to get to a point where this agency is under control," said Rep. Peter J. Roskam, the Illinois Republican who sponsored both bills.

Democrats put up some opposition, saying the IRS would have more time to comply with all of the taxpayer requests and could finish audits sooner if the agency didn't have to respond to so many investigations by House Republicans.

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