A House committee voted Wednesday to formally ask the Justice Department to consider criminal prosecution against ex-IRS official Lois Lerner, the figure at the center of the political targeting scandal.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted 23-14 to send the criminal referral, which accused her of "extreme bias." The vote marked an escalation in Republicans' push to confront Lerner over her role in the agency's controversial practice of singling out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny.
"If we don't stand up for the right of the American people, who else will?" committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said after the vote.
A 14-page letter to Attorney General Eric Holder outlined Republicans' case against the former IRS official, saying she "may have violated multiple criminal statutes."
The letter accused Lerner of using her position to improperly target conservative groups and deny their constitutional rights; of impeding an inspector general investigation by giving misleading statements; and of risking the disclosure of confidential taxpayer information.
"This investigation has uncovered serious, unprecedented actions taken by Lois Lerner that deprived conservative groups of their rights under the Constitution," Camp said in a statement. "Today's action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue. DOJ has a responsibility to act, and Lois Lerner must be held accountable."
The Justice Department is not obligated to act on the committee's referral. But, according to the committee, if convicted on these allegations she could face up to 11 years in prison.
The letter accused Lerner of showing "extreme bias and prejudice" in her oversight of the nonprofit sector. It specifically cited efforts to deny the conservative Crossroads GPS group's tax-exempt status application and target them for an audit, though left-leaning groups did not merit the same treatment.
On another front, a separate committee will vote Thursday on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for twice refusing to testify on the scandal.
The rare session on Wednesday to consider a criminal referral produced some partisan fireworks, as Democrats called the move against Lerner "unprecedented."
Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., initially tried to keep the deliberations open to the public and press, triggering a dispute with the chairman as he tried to raise a "point of order."
Camp then told Levin to "chill out."
"I'm very chilled out," he responded.
Despite Levin's objections -- and opposition from the rest of the Democrats on the committee -- lawmakers broke into closed session to debate the measure. After returning, they quickly approved the criminal referral.
A day earlier, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee formally laid out its case for contempt in a new report.
"Lois Lerner's testimony is critical to the committee's investigation," the oversight report stated. "Without her testimony, the full extent of the IRS's targeting of Tea Party applications cannot be known, and the committee will be unable to fully complete its work."
The report repeatedly called out for Lerner for refusing to cooperate with the committee's investigation.
During her first appearance before the committee last year, Lerner gave an opening statement and then invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination three times before being excused. Last month, she was before the lawmakers once more, once again exercising her Fifth Amendment rights.