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

Talk to us

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, Sept. 22

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Flowers bloom on the end of a dead tree on Spencer Island on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Restore salmon habitat but provide view of its work

Comments are sought on a plan to restore fish habitat to the island east of Everett with popular trails.

Schwab: GOP ‘projection’ is slideshow of hypocrisy, deflection

Trump, of course, is guilty, but so are House Republicans desperate to ferret out elusive dirt on Joe Biden.

Arlington Mayor Tolbert has helped her region rebuild, grow

Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert has implemented the best programs to help people… Continue reading

Johnson’s endorsements reason enough to earn vote for sheriff

Another week. Another death at the Snohomish County jail (“Man, 38, identified… Continue reading

Resumption of expanded child tax credit can fight poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau has released poverty data for 2022 and the… Continue reading

Comment: Musk is his CEO’s X-factor (and not in a good way)

Musk is the widely variable variable for the X chief executive who can’t make headway on advertising.

FILE - Six-year-old Eric Aviles receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Sylvia Uong at a pediatric vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11 set up at Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. In a statement Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, California's public health officer, Dr. Tomas J. Aragon, said that officials are monitoring the Omicron variant. There are no reports to date of the variant in California, the statement said. Aragon said the state was focusing on ensuring its residents have access to vaccines and booster shots. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Editorial: A plea for watchful calm this time regarding covid

We don’t need a repeat of uncontrolled infections or of the divisions over vaccines and masks.

A construction worker caulks the siding on a townhouse at The Towns at Riverfront housing development in Everett on October 25, 2017. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Editorial: How do we put housing within reach of everyone?

A Herald Forum panel discussion considered the challenges and solutions for affordable housing.

Most Read