House Oversight chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) appeared on Fox News Sunday to discuss his committee’s upcoming hearings on the IRS scandal, and dropped something of a bombshell by announcing that key scandal figure Lois Lerner would appear and give testimony, according to her attorney:
As recently as last week, Lerner was supposedly determined to take the Fifth again and avoid testifying. Issa says he’s not entirely certain what changed her mind, but thinks maybe she contemplated the evidence his committee has been accumulating and decided it was “in her best interest” to cooperate with his committee.
However, by Sunday afternoon, Fox News was delivering a response from Lerner’s attorney that she would take the Fifth, and he doesn’t know what Issa is talking about. Except he’s evidently given the committee written notice that Lerner would testify, although for unspecified reasons, she wants a one-week delay. Maybe she wants to give House Democrats a week to turn the hearings into a circus before she says anything.
There is still some debate about whether Lerner threw away her Fifth Amendment protection by opening her previous appearance with a self-serving declaration of innocence. Perhaps that technical fumble will make it harder for her to take the Fifth, if the committee has documentation that proves laws were indeed broken. Doubtless the Obama Administration’s loyal defenders will accuse Issa of grandstanding to bring media attention to his upcoming hearings, but the conflicting statements from Lerner’s legal representation suggest something is going on here.
Issa says that one of his committee’s paramount goals is making certain that nothing like the abuse of power against Tea Party groups can happen again. He notes that putting one person in a position to make so many politically charged decisions is unwise. In his Fox News Sunday appearance, Issa said several times that he was willing to believe Lerner was at the top of the scandal, perhaps nudged into targeting Tea Party groups by the sort of orchestrated pressure that doesn’t leave smoking-gun memos. Bradley Smith at the Wall Street Journal argued last week that all the dots in this scandal are right out in plain sight, including some widely reported public statements from President Obama and other top Democrats, but the media refuses to connect them.
That would make Lerner the designated fall gal for the whole operation – the faithful operative who needed only a bit of prodding to unleash her against groups she personally disapproved of, while the rest of her management structure pointedly ignored what was going on. Eventually they had to get in front of some damaging internal audits, but by then the damage was done. It’s not surprising to see the press refusing to connect those dots, but it’s still remarkable to inventory everything they’ve ignored – from early false blame-shifting statements about those “rogue employees in Cincinnati,” to the nearly perfect alignment between Democrat anti-Tea Party rhetoric and Lerner’s policies. An awful lot of people got to bow out of the scandal by claiming a level of ignorance that a more adversarial press would have found shocking.
In this new post-legal age of unaccountable Administration power, what leverage do congressional investigators have against someone like Lois Lerner? What could she possibly be worried about enough to do anything other than roll into the hearing, assert her Fifth Amendment rights, and call it a day? She can’t be all that worried about being held in contempt of Congress, not with the prospect of an Obama Justice investigation that would drag on longer than her Tea Party tax-exempt approvals. No one seems to be acting as though House Oversight might be sitting on the kind of evidence that would launch a tough criminal probe with serious consequences. If anything, Issa seems to be setting the stage for Lerner to appear at hearings, claim the whole scheme was her idea – but not a political hit, just a result of her personal attitude toward the targeted groups – and perhaps end on a high note with some constructive ideas for reform.
None of which would represent the sort of consequences that might deter future election-year funny business, but that’s how election-year funny business works. As long as the desired outcome is achieved at the ballot box, everything else is a minor detail to be cleared up later, after friendly media have declared the scandal a tedious bit of complicated ancient business they’d rather not discuss any more.
Update: Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who has been a strong presence in hearings on the IRS scandal, also says Lerner will testify before House Oversight… probably after that mysterious one-week delay her lawyer has requested.