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Lerner accused of driving IRS targeting, under pressure from 'voices on the left'

 

Embattled former IRS official Lois Lerner was accused in a detailed Republican-authored report of being deeply involved in the targeting of Tea Party groups, and working "surreptitiously" to rein them in under pressure from "voices on the left." 

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released the report as his committee weighs whether to hold Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify. The former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations division invoked the Fifth Amendment last week for the second time, refusing to answer questions before Issa's committee. 

Issa, in building the case for why Republicans want to hear from Lerner, released a 141-page report that details the contents of Lerner's emails, remarks and interactions with other IRS employees before, during and after the agency applied extra scrutiny to groups seeking tax-exempt status under a classification known as 501(c)(4). 

The report said she created "unprecedented roadblocks for Tea Party organizations" while trying to make it seem objective. 

"In the wake of Ms. Lerner's refusal to testify and answer questions, this report offers detailed evidence about steps she took to crack down on organizations that exercised their constitutional rights to free political speech," Issa said in a statement. "She involved herself in efforts to apply unprecedented scrutiny to new applicants, existing organizations, and to write new rules after President Obama and other prominent Democrats expressed outrage at the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision." 

The 2010 Citizens United decision was a major case that lifted long-standing campaign finance restrictions. The Issa report details how this created apparent pressure on the IRS to act. 

The report included remarks from Lerner during a 2010 speech where she noted the FEC "can't do anything" about the decision, and "they want the IRS to fix the problem." 

At the time, she claimed IRS laws were not set up to address the issue, but noted the agency would have to examine 501(c)(4) applicants further in order to find out whether they were engaging in too much political activity to qualify. Emails show that shortly before that speech, Lerner told colleagues that "we surely should be looking at" those groups. "My object is not to look for political activity -- more to see whether self-declared c4s are really acting like c4s," she said. According to the report, Lerner also wrote that "we need to be cautious so it isn't a per se political project." 

In 2013, according to the report, IRS officials also talked about the possibility of a court challenge involving one particular Tea Party group's application denial. Lerner said these groups were "itching for a constitutional challenge." 

Agency officials have acknowledged the scrutiny of Tea Party and other groups went too far, but they and Democratic lawmakers have argued that some level of review was needed to ensure they were not engaging in so much political activity as to violate nonprofit status. Democrats, increasingly frustrated by the length and scope of Republicans' IRS probe, did not sign off on Issa's latest report -- his Democratic counterpart Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., publicly clashed with Issa at last week's hearing. 

Cummings accused Issa of a "one-sided investigation," as Issa cut off his microphone. Issa later apologized. 

Lerner's attorney told The Washington Post, in response to the latest report, that Republicans on the committee have "no interest in the facts." 

"The facts interfere with keeping the conspiracy theory alive through the election cycle. It would be interesting to know who with any knowledge of the facts says Ms. Lerner did these things. There is not such a person," he said.