The dam protecting the IRS scandal began to crack today when Lois Lerner, the IRS official who announced, and apologized for, the improper singling out of conservative-leaning organizations by IRS employees under her command, announced through her criminal defense lawyer that she will not testify as scheduled tomorrow before the House Oversight Committee. Rather, she will assert her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
This marks a milestone in the IRS investigation. It can now be taken as more or less established that crimes were committed by Obama administration employees. Lerner’s lawyer tried to minimize the significance of her invoking the privilege against self-incrimination by saying that since law enforcement authorities have announced they are pursuing a criminal investigation, she had no choice. This is silly: people testify before Senate committees and grand juries when there is a criminal investigation going on, all the time. The ones who plead the Fifth are those who cannot answer questions honestly without confessing to serious crimes.
More information has come out about Ms. Lerner, too. It turns out that in her prior position at the Federal Elections Commission, Lerner was obsessed with religious organizations and their religious practices, some of which she apparently wanted to suppress. Mark Hemingway has the scoop:
prior to joining the IRS, Lerner’s tenure as head of the Enforcement Office at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was marked by what appears to be politically motivated harassment of conservative groups.
This excerpt is from a deposition taken by an FEC lawyer, acting under the direction of Lois Lerner, of Oliver North. This was in an FEC case, and apparently Lerner and her minions were burning to find out whether Pat Robertson had prayed for Oliver North:
Q: (reading from a letter from Oliver North to Pat Robertson) “‘Betsy and I thank you for your kind regards and prayers.’ The next paragraph is, ‘Please give our love to Dede and I hope to see you in the near future.’ Who is Dede?”
A: “That is Mrs. Robertson.”
Q: “What did you mean in paragraph 2, about thanking -you and your wife thanking Pat Robertson for kind regards?”
A: “Last time I checked in America, prayers were still legal. I am sure that Pat had said he was praying for my family and me in some correspondence or phone call.”
Q: “Would that be something that Pat Robertson was doing for you?”
A: “I hope a lot of people were praying for me, Holly.”
Q: “But you knew that Pat Robertson was?”
A: “Well, apparently at that time I was reﬂecting something that Pat had either, as I said, had told me or conveyed to me in some fashion, and it is my habit to thank people for things like that.”
Q: “During the time that you knew Pat Robertson, was it your impression that he had – he was praying for you?”
O: “I object. There is no allegation that praying creates a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act and there is no such allegation in the complaint. This is completely irrelevant and intrusive on the religious beliefs of this witness.”
O: “It is a very strange line of questioning. You have got to be kidding, really. What are you thinking of, to ask questions like that? I mean, really. I have been to some strange depositions, but I don’t think I have ever had anybody inquire into somebody’s prayers. I think that is really just outrageous. And if you want to ask some questions regarding political activities, please do and then we can get over this very quickly. But if you want to ask abou somebody’s religious activities, that is outrageous.”
Q: “I am allowed to make-’’
O: “We are allowed not to answer and if you think the Commission is going to permit you to go forward with a question about somebody’s prayers, I just don’t believe that. I just don’t for a moment believe that. I ﬁnd that the most outrageous line of questioning. I am going to instruct my witness not to answer.”
Q: “On what grounds?”
O: “We are not going to let you inquire about people’s religious beliefs or activities, period. If you want to ask about someone’s prayers-Jeez, I don’t know what we are thinking of. But the answer is, no, people are not going to respond to questions about people’s prayers, no.”
O: “You do whatever you think you have to do to get them to answer questions about what people are praying about.”
Q: “I did not ask Mr. North what people were praying about I am allowed to inquire about the relationship between-’’
O: “Absolutely, but you have asked the question repeatedly. If you move on to a question other than about prayer, be my guest.
These inquiries into the contents of “suspects'” prayers foreshadowed the improper inquiries that others, acting under her direction, would later direct to Tea Party groups.
The question now is, how many of Lerner’s colleagues will follow her lead and decline to answer questions? I suspect there may be several. Reliance on the FIfth Amendment tends to be contagious. The IRS investigation will take a new turn before long, but in the meantime, all we can do is sit back and enjoy the proceeding.