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House Oversight Committee says IRS employee who refused to testify on Tea Party targeting waived her 5th Amendment right

Lois Lerner_IRS Director of Exempt OrganizationsLois Lerner refused to talk to the House Oversight Committee during a hearing into charges that conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status received improper added scrutiny.

Lerner, who at the time was in charge of the Internal Revenue Service's Tax Exempt and Government Entities division that reviewed the 501(c)(4) applications in question, read a brief prepared statement asserting that she had done nothing wrong. 

She then asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and was excused from the May 22 hearing by Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

But the Republican committee members have been stewing ever since over what they viewed as disrespect by Lerner, who subsequently was suspended from her post by her IRS bosses.

And today GOP Oversight members took action against Lerner.

No Fifth says committee: In a 22-17 party line vote, Oversight members passed a resolution finding that by reading the statement before refusing to testify, Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment right.

At the time, Lerner's action particularly irked committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). The former federal prosecutor argued that the panel's inquiry should operate as a courtroom hearing.

"You don’t get to tell your side of the story and not be subjected to cross examination," said an agitated Gowdy. "That's not the way it works."

He reiterated that sentiment during today's vote, saying, "That's not how the Fifth Amendment works. You're not allowed to just say your side of the story. She could have sat there and said nothing."

Democrats disagree: Democrats, however, said Lerner's use of the Fifth Amendment was not negated by her statement.

They pointed out that her actions, both reading the document and then refusing to testify, were made after consultation with her attorneys.

The vote stripping a witness of constitutional protections also would be a dangerous precedent, they argued.

"I agree that she has information that is relevant to the Committee's investigation," said ranking Oversight Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. "But we must respect the constitutional rights of every witness who comes before the committee."

Cummings, who is an attorney, requested that Issa hold a hearing on the potential waiver so that the panel could hear from legal experts on both sides of the argument. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a law professor, offered a substitute amendment to that effect. It failed 16-20.

Subject to recall: Because the Oversight hearing was not adjourned, but simply recessed by Issa last month, it could resume at any time.

And while today's resolution doesn't force Lerner to return to Capitol Hill, it does clear the way for her to be recalled by Issa to testify.

If that happens, be prepared for more hearing fireworks, regardless of whether Lerner appears or skips the next invitation, and, of course, the ensuing political pontificating statements.

Another Oversight Fifth Amendment plea: It seems that other IRS folks also have no desire to talk to the Oversight panel.

An IRS deputy director this week refused to testify before the committee's hearing looking into millions in technology contracts award Washington, D.C.-based Strong Castle.

Greg Roseman was subpoenaed to discuss on June 26 his personal relationship with Strong Castle Inc. President Braulio Castillo.

"Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer any questions and invoke my Fifth Amendment privilege to remain silent," Roseman told Oversight Committee chair Issa.

Castillo did testify, telling the committee that he and Roseman are friends.

However, said Castillo, his company did not received "inappropriate preferential treatment" from the IRS. A report by the House staff puts the amount of Strong Castle contracts at $500 million. Castillo's prepared testimony set the contracts' value at $50 million.

In conjunction with the hearing, the Oversight Committee released its report into what it calls Castle's "cozy relationship" with the IRS.

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