IRS Witness Turns Down Questions At Congressional Hearing

Lois Lerner was the first IRS official to explain how conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status were flagged for extra scrutiny. On Wednesday, she cited her constitutional right not to incriminate herself and declined to answer questions from a House committee.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Another day, another heated hearing on Capitol Hill about the IRS. The agency's leadership has faced angry questions over its flagging of conservative groups applying for tax exempt status. At today's hearing, the most anticipated witness answered no questions. Instead, she took the Fifth, as we hear from NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Lois Lerner is the IRS official who blew open the scandal two weeks ago, answering what it turns out was a planted question at a conference for tax attorneys. She said the targeting of groups with Tea Party and patriot in their names was wrong, insensitive and inappropriate. In recent days, congressional committees have grilled two former IRS directors, but Lerner is the one who oversees the part of the IRS responsible for the singling out.

And even before the hearing started, her attorney made it clear she wouldn't be answering questions. When called on, Lerner made brief remarks.

LOIS LERNER: I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.

KEITH: Then she plead the Fifth, citing an ongoing criminal investigation and allegations from members of the committee that she had lied to Congress.

LERNER: Because I'm asserting my right not to testify, I know that some people will assume that I've done something wrong. I have not.

KEITH: This didn't sit well with South Carolina Republican and former prosecutor Trey Gowdy.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: She just testified. She just waived her Fifth Amendment right to privilege. 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 waived her right to Fifth Amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement. She ought to stand here and answer our questions.

KEITH: She didn't. Committee chairman, California Republican Darrell Issa, allowed Lerner to leave and the committee then questioned the former director of the IRS, the inspector general and the deputy director of the Treasury Department for some five hours, eliciting a couple of apologies, but no major revelations. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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