WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee says investigators have uncovered evidence that a former Internal Revenue Service official may have committed crimes as part of the agency’s tea party controversy.
Rep. Dave Camp set a committee vote for Wednesday on whether to refer Lois Lerner, who used to head the agency’s tax-exempt division, to the Justice Department “for possible criminal prosecution.”
Camp, R-Mich., did not specify which laws Lerner may have broken.
Lerner’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, has said she broke no laws. On Monday, Taylor emailed this response to Camp’s announcement: “One word: Ridiculous.”
Camp’s committee has been investigating the IRS for nearly a year. Unlike other House committees, Ways and Means has access to confidential taxpayer information as part of its investigation.
If the committee votes to refer Lerner to the Justice Department, the committee is expected to make the referral public.
The Justice Department is already investigating whether any crimes were committed when IRS agents singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012.
Taylor told reporters in March that Lerner had sat down for a lengthy interview with the Justice Department.
The IRS’ inspector general said in a report last year that tax-exempt applications from tea party and other conservative groups were set aside for special scrutiny simply because they included words such as “tea party” and “patriots.” Several hundred applications, from both conservative and liberal groups, languished for years without a ruling by the IRS, the report said.
Lerner first publicly disclosed the issue at a lawyers’ conference in May 2013. At the time, she apologized on behalf of the IRS.
Soon afterward, President Barack Obama forced the acting IRS commissioner to resign, and much of the agency’s top leadership has been replaced.
Lerner has emerged as a central figure in investigations by congressional committees. The House Oversight Committee has scheduled a vote for Thursday on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at two congressional hearings.
At both hearings, Lerner invoked her constitutional right against self-incrimination. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Lerner had effectively waived her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions by providing an opening statement at a hearing last year.
Taylor and Democrats on the oversight committee disagree.
Lerner is an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001. She retired last fall, ending a 34-year career in federal government, which included work at the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission.