Trey Gowdy (Getty Images)
By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina tapped into his previous career as a federal prosecutor Wednesday in challenging an Internal Revenue Service official's refusal to answer questions about her office's targeting of conservative organizations for special scrutiny.
The drama began when Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS office that oversees tax-exempt organizations, said she had done nothing wrong but then refused to testify about her office's treatment of conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status.
"I have not broken any laws," Lerner said during the hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where Gowdy is a member. "I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee."
When committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., started to excuse Lerner, Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, interjected.
"You don't get to tell your side of the story and not be subject to cross-examination," Gowdy said. "She ought to stand here and answer our questions."
Gowdy argued that by making an opening statement, Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
Issa excused Lerner, but six hours later he referenced Gowdy's comments and said he may recall her.
"She made assertions under oath in the form of testimony," Issa said.
Gowdy also accused a former IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, of failing to report a possible crime by not taking action after learning agency employees had singled out tea party groups for extra scrutiny in reviewing their applications for tax-exempt status.
The House committee spent six hours Wednesday grilling top IRS officials about that practice.
Lerner said she was following the advice of her attorney in invoking her Fifth Amendment rights.
She has not been charged with a crime, and Issa noted that witnesses are allowed to assert their right not to testify. He also said committee members shouldn't use Lerner's refusal to testify for "political gain."
Lerner is the official who initially revealed the targeting of tea party groups and apologized for it.
Shulman said he learned tea party groups had been improperly targeted after an IRS inspector general had already started his audit of the practice.
He told Gowdy he didn't know the names of the employees responsible for ordering the extra scrutiny of the tea party organizations.
"Despite the seriousness and potential criminality of that conduct, you didn't investigate it yourself at all?" Gowdy asked. "Did you do anything to verify the practice, as insidious as it was, was stopped?
Shulman said the practice had ended by then, and the inspector general was investigating.
In an interview after the hearing, Gowdy said federal prosecutors in Ohio, where the IRS tax-exempt organizations office is located, have jurisdiction to investigate whether IRS employees violated laws against government workers using their positions to favor certain political groups. The Justice Department also has opened a criminal investigation.
The inspector general's report found that the IRS tax-exempt organizations office put tea party applications through an additional layer of review, and many of those applications were delayed more than a year.
Outrage over the practice was strong on both sides of the aisle, as Democrats and Republicans blasted IRS and Treasury Department witnesses for allowing it to happen and not informing Congress sooner.
None of the witnesses said the practice was initiated or directed by outside political organizations.