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Yesterday’s vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress represents another step forward in the ongoing quest to hold the agency accountable for the discrimination it practiced against conservative non-profit groups in the 2012 presidential election.
It was Lerner who first confessed to the scandal, a carefully orchestrated admission to get ahead of the story before it came out on its own, but since that fateful day Ms. Lerner has steadfastly refused to offer further clarification as to what actually happened and under whose orders. Was it the discretionary actions of a few drones, inappropriately taking matters into their own hands and allowing their political biases to inform their decision making? Or was it a more systematic policy, passed down to agency officials from a higher office as a way of ensuring that the president win his reelection campaign?
Until Lerner can be persuaded to speak, it is unlikely we will find out for sure. No one else at the IRS is talking, and Attorney General Eric Holder seems unenthusiastic about pursuing an investigation that may well implicate people he works for. This is despite a formal request from the House Ways and Means Committee requesting the Justice Department look at prosecuting Lerner on criminal charges.
While Lerner justified her silence by invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, there is disagreement over whether this protection actually applies. The Constitution stipulates that the Fifth Amendment applies in criminal trials, and because Lerner was testifying only before Congress, a body with no legal authority to charge her with a crime, there was no danger of self-incrimination, and hence no right against it. With this in mind, the contempt vote is encouraging for those of us hoping for answers on the roots of this outrageous abuse of power.
The next step will be for the Justice Department to bring criminal charges. Even without Lerner’s willingness to testify, a continuing string of leaked emails may yet provide the evidence necessary for a conviction. But putting Lois Lerner in jail will not get to the root of the problem. A more preferable outcome would be an open and honest testimonial in which she explains exactly what she knew and when she knew it.
The contempt vote itself is largely symbolic and unlikely to have any immediate effects. It must be remembered that Eric Holder himself was held in contempt of Congress nearly two years ago over his involvement in the Fast and Furious gun running scandal, seemingly without consequence to himself. Still, the vote is important to keep the story alive and keep the pressure on Lerner to provide an explanation for her actions.
The benefit of the continuing investigation is that it gives Ms. Lerner more chances to finally come clean and tell the truth. As soon as the case hits a dead end, the investigation will be finished and we will never hear another word about the abuses of the IRS or their origin. The scandal will be swept into the dustbin of history with all the other unproven crimes committed by the government against its people over the years.
When federal regulatory agencies are given as much discretionary power as the IRS has, it is vital that there be accountability and transparency to the American people. This investigation is important to shed light on what really happens in the regulatory state, and we can only hope that Lerner will eventually choose to cooperate, for her sake and for ours.