WASHINGTON -- A House committee Wednesday took the rare step of recommending criminal prosecution of Lois Lerner over the alleged targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, the latest bid by Republicans to keep the issue alive ahead of the midterm elections.
The House Ways and Means Committee voted 23 to 14 to forward to the Justice Department its findings that Lerner, the former director of the IRS division tasked with policing entities with tax-exempt status, "may have violated multiple federal criminal statutes."
A 14-page letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. outlines the committee's findings and recommends three potential charges: that Lerner improperly influenced the agency to target conservative organizations in violation of their constitutional rights; that she impeded a congressional investigation through "misleading statements" to a Treasury inspector general; and that she may have improperly disclosed confidential taxpayer information, a felony offense.
"The Committee asks that you pursue this evidence and ensure that the victims of IRS abuse do not also suffer neglect from the criminal justice system," committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) wrote to Holder.
Democrats objected to the move, noting that the Justice Department already is conducting an investigation. Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the panel's senior Democrat, noted that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee separately plans to vote Thursday on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify.
"It now seems clear that Republican members of the Ways and Means Committee have decided that they do not want to be left behind in the Republican campaign to declare this a scandal and keep it going until November," he said.
In a statement, Lerner's attorney said she has "done nothing wrong," and called the timing of the committee's action "odd."
"The Department of Justice is already investigating the IRS," William W. Taylor III said. "This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain."
The IRS scandal first broke last May after it was revealed that a regional branch office was setting aside applications for tax-exempt status from groups identified with terms such as "tea party" or "patriot." At the time, Lerner said it was the responsibility of lower-level employees. She later invoked her 5th Amendment right not to testify before Congress; she left the agency last September.
The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration said last year that the IRS' actions appeared to be the result of low-level incompetence, rather than political bias.