House Republicans have scheduled a vote next week to hold Lois G. Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about her role in the Internal Revenue Service’s tea party targeting scandal, setting up a major battle over constitutional rights versus Congress’ ability to oversee the government.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, the House’s top investigator, said Thursday that as a senior official at the center of the IRS targeting, Ms. Lerner will either talk or face penalties for refusing to help the committee get to the bottom of who orchestrated the targeting and what the motives were.
“Ms. Lerner’s involvement in wrongdoing and refusal to meet her legal obligations has left the committee with no alternative but to consider a contempt finding,” he said.
Mr. Issa has scheduled an April 10 vote of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. If the contempt resolution passes, it will go to the House floor for final approval and would not require approval of the Democrat-led Senate.
Ms. Lerner ran the IRS division that oversaw nonprofit groups’ applications for tax-exempt status. That is the branch that reviewed, delayed and, in many cases, posed intrusive questions to tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Ms. Lerner was allowed to retire in September despite the investigation, but Congress has obtained a number of emails from her time at the IRS that, Republican lawmakers contend, show she was intent on stopping conservative groups from using tax-exempt status to play political roles.
Ms. Lerner’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Democrats, saying they were blindsided, criticized the scheduled vote.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Mr. Issa has mishandled the entire investigation into the IRS and Ms. Lerner in particular.
“Chairman Issa has demonstrated over and over again that he simply does not want to hear from anyone who disagrees with him or has information that does not fit his political narrative — including witnesses, independent legal experts, and even committee members like myself,” Mr. Cummings said.
Ms. Lerner also reportedly is unhappy with the way Mr. Issa has handled the investigation. According to The Wall Street Journal, she has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigation into the IRS, even as she refuses to work with Congress.
Whether Ms. Lerner could be held in contempt has been the subject of heated legal debate.
Some legal scholars argue that Mr. Issa botched a March 5 hearing with Ms. Lerner by not telling her she faced consequences if she continued to assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The oversight committee has ruled that Ms. Lerner waived that right because she delivered a statement declaring her innocence before refusing to answer further questions.
Mr. Cummings has solicited evaluations by more than two dozen lawyers who said Ms. Lerner shouldn’t be subject to contempt.
“At no time during his questioning did the chair explicitly demand an answer to his questions, expressly overrule her claim of privilege, or make it clear that her refusal to respond would result in a criminal contempt prosecution,” wrote Morton Rosenberg, who spent more than three decades as a legal analyst at the Congressional Research Service.
But the House’s chief attorney has written a memo saying Ms. Lerner and her attorney were aware that the committee rejected Ms. Lerner’s assertion of her right against self-incrimination and that she knew the consequences of refusing to testify.
“The committee formally rejected her Fifth Amendment claims and expressly advised her of its determination,” the House counsel wrote. “Second, the committee chairman thereafter advised Ms. Lerner in writing that the Committee expected her to answer its questions, and advised her orally, at the reconvened hearing on March 5, 2014, that she faced the possibility of being held in contempt of Congress if she continued to decline to provide answers.”
In his statement announcing the vote, Mr. Issa said contempt proceedings usually authorize both criminal and civil action.
The House Republican majority has voted to cite Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for contempt for his refusal to turn over documents related to Operation Fast and Furious, which led to thousands of weapons going untraced and ending up in the hands of drug cartels.
Mr. Holder still refuses to comply with the contempt citation, and his case is snarled in court proceedings.