The Silence of the Tax Lamb

Former IRS official Lois Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right Wednesday not to incriminate herself when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the IRS targeting of tea party groups.

Oddly, the news media and Democratic leaders don’t think it’s a big deal when a federal official — Lerner was the head of the unit that deals with tax-exempt organizations when she first invoked the Fifth last May — won’t answer questions about her actions as a federal official, but they are in a huff because the committee’s chairman, Darrell Issa, abruptly called an end to the hearing and shut off the microphone.

Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings said he wanted to ask “a procedural question.” Then, as Cummings instead engaged in a rant in defense of Lerner, Issa again shut off the mic. Within a minute, it was back on, and Cummings continued to rail against what he sees as a one-sided investigation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi later tweeted that Issa’s “decision to silence a fellow Member of Congress was outrageous &disrespectful.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank denounced Issa for falling below “today’s low standard of civility in Congress.”

Issa exhibited shoddy manners. Worse, he lacked the discipline to not be baited by the crafty Cummings. Thus, Issa handed the left an excuse to make him the issue when the Internal Revenue Service’s practice of going after the tea party cries out for public scrutiny. Lerner’s refusal to answer questions, though it is the exercise of a constitutional right, should make all House members squirm.

Just what was Lerner doing on the taxpayer dime that she doesn’t want to share?

Lerner’s silence is especially unsettling given that her attorney William Taylor III told reporters that she had given a full interview to the Department of Justice with no grant of immunity. Lerner’s lawyers, he said, have confidence that prosecutors, unlike Issa, are open-minded. The thing is that also unlike Issa, the Department of Justice is in a position to prosecute people.

“It does strike me as a little odd,” Rutgers law professor George Thomas III told The Wall Street Journal. “One explanation is the one given by her lawyer. The other, darker explanation is that she and her lawyer think the DOJ is not interested in a serious investigation of the IRS treatment of these tax-exempt groups.”

Could it be that Lerner’s lawyers do not fear the often-terrifying Justice Department precisely because President Barack Obama already signaled there is no cause for concern because the IRS story is a “phony scandal”?

Similarly, the president signaled his disdain for conservative nonprofits during the 2010 and 2012 election seasons. Lo and behold, the IRS started to put conservative tax-exempt organizations on the slow track and under a microscope.

Last year, Lerner admitted that after the IRS saw an uptick in applications for social welfare organizations in 2010, staff began screening for groups that used terms such as “Tea Party” and “Patriots.” She even apologized. “That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, insensitive and inappropriate. That’s not how we go about selecting cases for further review,” Lerner said.

She also claimed that IRS staffers did not target tea party patriot types “because of any political bias. They did it because they were working together. This was a streamlined way for them to refer to the cases.”

That is, it was convenient.

I do not believe that claim. I don’t know many liberals who actually believe it, either. I do believe that if the Bush administration’s IRS had targeted social welfare groups that used terms such as “anti-war” and “torture,” the left would have wanted to investigate. They would have wanted to know whether the IRS policy had come from the White House. And they wouldn’t have given a pass to officials who took the Fifth.

Milbank is put out that Issa “forced” Lerner to invoke her right against self-incrimination “no fewer than 10 times.” Apparently, it would be the gentlemanly thing for Issa to allow Lerner to maintain a version of events that defies credulity without answering to the American public.

Ignorance is bliss.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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