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An embattled IRS official takes the 5th: Damning evidence of guilt?
At the very least, Lois Lerner's silence before the House Oversight committee is bad optics for the Obama administration
 
"I have not done anything wrong."
"I have not done anything wrong." Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Lois Lerner, a high-ranking IRS official, invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions in an appearance Wednesday before a House committee investigating the tax agency's improper targeting of conservatives. IRS leaders and an inspector general have said there is no evidence anyone broke any laws in the case, in which IRS employees singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012. Conservatives disagree. Is Lerner's apparent concern that she might incriminate herself an admission of guilt, and proof that laws were in fact broken?

Some say her move doesn't exactly help her case. Lerner, head of the IRS' tax-exempt organizations division, which did the profiling, was the one who, at a legal conference two weeks ago, disclosed the IRS scandal. She discovered in June 2011 that some staff had used terms such as "Tea Party" and "Patriots" to weed out groups that wouldn't qualify for tax exemptions due to their political activities. "She ordered changes," note Richard Simon and Joseph Tanfani at The Los Angeles Times. "But neither Lerner nor anyone else at the IRS told Congress, even after repeated queries from several committees, including the House Oversight panel, about whether some groups had been singled out unfairly."

To critics of the Obama administration, Lerner's silence speaks volumes. Steven Miller, who was forced to resign as acting IRS commissioner after the scandal broke, testified that the IRS had done nothing illegal. That didn't sit well with members of Congress, so when Lerner's lawyer, in a letter to the House Oversight committee, said there was no point in making her appear since she's taking the Fifth, committee Chairman Darrell Issa issued a subpoena anyway. Lerner's testimony — or lack thereof — offers "the nation vivid evidence that something is up, possibly criminal, with the IRS targeting of Tea Party organizations," says Thomas Lifson at American Thinker:

It will be great political theatre to see her questioned about who suggested that she set up a question so she could disclose the IRS scandal at an ABA meeting on taxation — in the form of an apology to a question. [American Thinker]

That may be so, but pleading the Fifth isn't the same as admitting a crime. Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway points out that Lerner has plenty of reasons to decline to answer the committee's questions. Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a criminal investigation. Unlike outgoing acting commissioner Miller, "Lerner was close enough to what was going on to, potentially, be a target of that investigation," Mataconis notes. "Additionally, Lerner had apparently testified before Congress regarding claims of targeting by Tea Party groups long before this story ever broke, and some members of Congress have suggested that she committed perjury when she did so."

Any testimony she gives now that conflicts even in the slightest from what she testified to before could subject her to claims of perjury. Lying to Congress is a crime that people do get charged with, just ask Roger Clemens, who went through two trials before being acquitted on perjury charges last year. Given all of this, and the lack of any testimonial immunity grant from Congress, it's obvious that Lerner's attorney would have strongly recommended that she invoke her Fifth Amendment rights. [Outside the Beltway]

Either way, Lerner's appearance is bound to amount to bad optics for the Obama administration, which has its hands full tamping down a trio of controversies this week. Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge says that Lerner's silence will, at a minimum, be an embarrassing spectacle for those who have been arguing that the IRS scandal "has been spun out of all proportion."

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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