GOP lawmakers are urging the Trump Justice Department to review evidence that former IRS official Lois Lerner engaged in criminal misconduct by targeting tea-party and conservative groups for their political beliefs.
Lerner, meanwhile, the subject of a class-action lawsuit by more than 400 of the targeted groups, is asking a judge to seal her upcoming deposition in the case, claiming she faces death threats.
The Obama Justice Department investigated Lerner but decided in 2015 not to prosecute her, noted Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Tax Policy Subcommittee Chairman Peter Roskam, R-Ill., in a letter Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Lerner, the former IRS exempt organizations division director during the Obama administration, confessed in 2013 that her agency obstructed tea-party and conservative groups' applications prior to the 2012 election because of their political beliefs. She pinned the blame on low-level employees, however, then pleaded the Fifth in a hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform House committee. The GOP-led House responded by passing a contempt-of-court resolution, and she resigned in September 2013.
In their letter, the lawmakers pointed out to Sessions that in February 2014, while the DOJ probe was ongoing, President Obama stated there was "not a smidgeon of corruption" at the IRS, which, they said, "preempted a fair investigation."
The congressmen said the Obama administration refused to review the information and deliver justice to the taxpayers harmed by Lerner's actions.
"Taxpayers deserve to know that the DOJ's previous evaluation was not tainted by politics," Brady and Roskam wrote.
They noted a three-year investigation by the House Ways and Means Committee referred Lerner for criminal prosecution, finding she "used her position to improperly influence IRS action against conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law."
"The Committee also found she impeded official investigations by providing misleading statements in response to questions from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. Finally, Lerner risked exposing, and may actually have disclosed, confidential taxpayer information, in apparent violation of Internal Revenue Code section 6103 by using her personal email to conduct official business."
Meanwhile, in the class-action lawsuit, Lerner and IRS official Holly Paz told Judge Michael R. Barrett they faced "harassment and death threats" when the media were covering the tea-party scandal, the Washington Times reported Thursday.
"Mss. Lerner and Paz have demonstrated that the public dissemination of their deposition testimony would expose them and their families to harassment and a credible risk of violence and physical harm," they said in documents submitted by their lawyer.
The Times said the class-action lawsuit has been joined by 428 groups that claim they were victims of IRS targeting.
The Justice Department's investigation of the IRS scandal, which began in May 2013, closed in October 2015 with the DOJ announcing it would not seek criminal charges. The DOJ found "substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment and institutional inertia" but "found no evidence that any IRS official acted based on political, discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives that would support a criminal prosecution."
The genesis of the scandal, according to the House Ways and Means Committee investigation, was in the Jan. 21, 2010, U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, which the committee said, led "to an active campaign by Democrats against conservative groups – a campaign Lerner was well aware of and reacted to."
Six days later, President Obama dispensed with protocol in his State of the Union address, castigating the Supreme Court for its Citizens United ruling, which determined political contributions by corporations and unions are protected speech under the First Amendment.
"With all due deference to separation of powers," Obama said, "last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections. I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities."
About two months later, the targeting began, according to the audit report by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, when the IRS Determinations Unit "began searching for other requests for exemption involving the Tea Party, Patriots, 9/12 and IRC § 501(c)(4) applications involving political sounding names, e.g., ‘We the People' or ‘Take Back the Country.'"
"These are front groups for foreign-controlled companies, which would have been banned under the bill that we put through Congress, and they don't want the American people to know, and the American people ought to be alert to that," Axelrod said.
Lerner, later that month, told students at Duke University that 501(c)(4) organizations were spending money on campaign activity in the wake of the Citizens United decision and claimed, "[E]verybody is screaming at us, ‘fix it now before the election.'"
In February 2011, Lerner sent an email to IRS employees stating: "Tea Party Matter very dangerous ....Cincy should probably NOT have these cases," referring to the IRS Cincinnati office.
On May 10, 2013, Lerner tried to get out ahead of the damning findings of the Treasury inspector general's audit report by planting a question at a meeting of the American Bar Association. She said the IRS was "apologetic" for "absolutely inappropriate" actions, which she blamed on low-level "front-line people" in the Cincinnati office.
But the Washington Post later reported documents showed that "IRS officials at the agency's Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations," as did officials in two California offices.
‘I didn't do anything wrong'
Last November, the Washington watchdog Judicial Watch asked President Trump to consider criminal counts against the IRS, citing new evidence it had obtained.
WND reported this week a tea-party group was finally approved for tax-exempt status seven years after applying. The American Center for Law and Justice, which defended the group, said the extraordinary delays were "common practice with many of our clients."
"Months and even years would go by with no response from the IRS," ACLJ said. "The intrusive questions and delay after delay were all tactics used by the IRS as part of their unconstitutional targeting scheme."
In a September 2014 interview with Politico, her first since the scandal broke 16 months earlier, Lerner claimed innocence.
"I didn't do anything wrong," she said. "I'm proud of my career and the job I did for this country."
Politico also quoted House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who begged to differ.
"We followed the trail where it leads, and we saw it lead to Lois Lerner," he said at a hearing at the time. "She refers with disdain to conservatives; she's an active liberal; and it's clear her actions were set out to be detrimental to conservatives."
Republicans lawmakers pointed to emails in which Lerner inquired about Crossroads specifically, Politico reported. Lerner asked her colleagues why the group hadn't been audited and suggested its application should be denied.
Politico also noted that "just weeks before the tea party news broke, after she had seen a draft of the damning inspector general report, she asked colleagues if internal IRS instant messages are tracked and could be requested by Congress."
Notably, two years' worth of Lerner's emails disappeared in a 2011 computer crash that was revealed to Congress in June 2014, a year after the controversy began.