WASHINGTON — The former Internal Revenue Service official at the heart of the controversy over the agency’s targeting of conservative groups once again refused to answer questions at a House hearing Wednesday amid signs that a congressional investigation into the affair may be stalling.
Lois Lerner headed the IRS division that is said to have improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. On Wednesday, she was recalled to testify before the House Oversight Committee for the second time in a year.
But just like the first time, she declined to answer questions about her involvement. Appearing with her lawyer, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at least nine times in response to questions by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Later, Lerner’s lawyer told reporters she didn’t testify, because “we completely lost confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the forum.”
“This matter has become polarized,” said the lawyer, William Taylor III. “It is completely partisan. There was no possibility, in my view, that Ms. Lerner would be given a fair opportunity to speak, to answer questions or to tell the truth.”
Taylor said the whole ordeal, which began last May when Lerner first disclosed the targeting at a Washington law conference, has been unsettling for his client. Lerner has received a total of six death threats by email and regular mail, Taylor said. They have been turned over to the FBI, he said.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Issa suggested his committee’s investigation may become stalled without Lerner’s testimony.
“At this point, roads lead to Ms. Lerner,” Issa said. Without her testimony, he said, “it may dead-end at Ms. Lerner.”
Two other congressional committees, the Justice Department and the IRS’s inspector general are also investigating.