House committee holds Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee officially voted Wednesday to hold former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. The 21 to 12 vote broke down along party lines, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.

The vote comes after the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has been repeatedly stymied in his effort to get Lerner to testify before the committee over the IRS'

It is the view of committee Republicans, however, that Lerner waived that right during her first appearance in May 2013 when she made a brief statement insisting she had "done nothing wrong" before invoking the Fifth and refusing to answer any more questions.

"The American taxpayers certainly don't get to plead the Fifth and escape all accountability when the IRS audits them," Issa said as he gathered the committee Thursday morning to vote on contempt.

Issa said he might have been willing to consider an offer of immunity if Lerner explained why she needed it to tell the full truth, but that she does not need immunity if she has truly done nothing wrong.

"We cannot tell the American people that we have done all we can to get the truth in this or other investigations if we offer a pass to a critical witness like Ms. Lerner," Issa said.

The IRS investigation has been an ongoing source of tension between the Republicans and the Democrats, who say it has morphed into a McCarthy-esque witch hunt.

In a statement he said was directed at "generations of Americans yet unborn who will learn about this vote in their history books long after I'm dead," the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., argued the committee was trying to "strip away an American citizens' rights under the Constitution."

"Members of this body believe this vote was a rejection of the constitutional principles we were sworn to uphold," he said. "I want them to know that I object."

He said he was not defending Lerner's actions.

Separately, the House Ways and Means Committee voted along partisan lines Wednesday to officially urge Attorney General Eric Holder to consider criminal charges against Lerner.

In the criminal referral letter it is sending to Holder, the committee charges that Lerner improperly used her position to influence action against conservative groups like Crossroads GPS while showing leniency toward similar liberal groups like Priorities USA, gave misleading statements to the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the internal IRS watchdog, and used her personal email address to conduct official business.

In response to the letter, the Justice Department on Wednesday pointed out it's already investigating the controversy.

"As the Department has repeatedly confirmed, there is already an active, ongoing investigation into the IRS's handling of applications by tax-exempt organizations," Justice Department spokesperson Emily Pierce said in a statement. "It remains a high priority of the Department. We will review the letter once we receive it and take it under consideration."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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