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The IRS official in charge of the division accused of improperly targeting conservative groups will invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against compelled self-incrimination at a committee hearing Wednesday, a sign of concern that the political controversy is heading into the criminal arena.
Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS Exempt Organization Division, is still expected to appear at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing but will refuse to answer questions, citing the criminal investigation into IRS actions.
Ali Ahmed, a spokesman for Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Lerner’s attorney had sent the panel a letter but he said Issa “remains hopeful that she will ultimately decide to testify tomorrow about her knowledge of outrageous IRS targeting of Americans for their political beliefs.”
The announcement signaled a potentially dramatic turn in a controversy that has embroiled Capitol Hill and the IRS since the release last week of an inspector general’s reporting describing actions by IRS workers over several years to single out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and subject them to intrusive questioning.
Lerner is the third current or former IRS official scheduled to appear before Congress. Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said Tuesday he was “dismayed” and “saddened” that the IRS had scrutinized conservative groups in a way that hurt its reputation as a nonpartisan agency.
Making his first public appearance since the release of the inspector general’s report, Shulman expressed his regret at a Senate Finance Committee hearing but said he did not know why IRS employees had singled out groups with words such as “tea party” in their names.
Shulman, who led the IRS from 2008 through the fall of 2012, said recent revelations have “been bad for the agency and bad for the American taxpayer.” But he said the IRS does its “job in an admirable way a great majority of the time.”
While senators sharply criticized Shulman and his successor as acting commissioner, Steven Miller, for allowing the screening of conservative groups to occur, Democrats on the panel repeatedly raised questions about the laws and regulations that the IRS employees handling applications from nonprofit groups were trying to enforce.
In recent years, more organizations involved in political causes have applied for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows them to keep the names of their donors secret.