Lois Lerner, who supervises the IRS employees handling applications for… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
WASHINGTON — In a contentious climax Wednesday to a series of congressional hearings, Lois Lerner, a key IRS manager, invoked her right to not testify about the agency's targeting of conservative groups, igniting howls from Republicans and sparking a threat to bring her back for another round.
Deprived of a crucial witness, members of Congress from both parties alternately grilled and scolded former Commissioner Douglas Shulman about the Internal Revenue Service's improper screening of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Although new details and documents have emerged about how IRS staff scrutinized organizations for political activity, the three hearings on three different days turned up no evidence that the aggressive screening stemmed from partisan motives or was ordered from above, either by the White House or by senior IRS management.
DOCUMENT: Inspector General’s IRS report
The hearings, launched by the release last week of a scathing inspector general's report, instead have painted a picture of a bungling agency in which top managers in Washington were largely out of touch with how their staff in a Cincinnati field office was handling applications for tax exemptions.
Many questions have not been answered, including how the improper screening started, why it continued on and off for two years, and why top IRS officials did not reveal it for more than a year despite pointed questions from Congress and loud complaints from the targeted conservative groups.
Lerner, who still supervises the IRS staff that handles those applications, and Shulman appeared Wednesday before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but provided little illumination.
Lerner, who revealed the inappropriate targeting two weeks ago, read a statement saying she did nothing wrong, then invoked her 5th Amendment right to not answer questions. "Because I'm asserting my right not to testify, I know that some people will assume that I've done something wrong. I have not," she said.
PHOTOS: President Obama’s rough week
Her decision did not sit well with Republicans angered that conservative groups, including local tea party organizations, faced intrusive questions and long delays when they applied for nonprofit status.
"Ms. Lerner has invoked her constitutional rights not to answer our questions about her involvement or the IRS' involvement, ironically, about denying others their constitutional rights," Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) said.
Lerner, noting that the Department of Justice had launched a criminal investigation, said her lawyer advised her not to testify. It is relatively rare for witnesses to invoke the 5th Amendment. In April 2012, a federal official refused to answer questions about a lavish conference in Las Vegas. And a year earlier, executives of Solyndra invoked the right during a congressional probe of federal grants to their failed solar-energy firm.
The oversight committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), excused Lerner, but said he may ask her to appear again, on the grounds that she may have waived her rights by first offering a defense of her actions.
Legal experts were divided on the question. Stanley Brand, former general counsel to the U.S. House, said other witnesses have made introductory statements before invoking the 5th. But Paul Rothstein, a professor of judicial process at Georgetown University Law Center, said Lerner is on "pretty thin ice" because her remarks touched on the subject of the hearing.
The IRS did not respond to questions about Lerner.
"It's important to find the facts before you hold people accountable," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday when asked why Lerner was still at the IRS.
The new acting commissioner, Daniel Werfel, started Wednesday. President Obama asked him to report back in 30 days on what action he had taken to hold accountable staff who acted inappropriately. "There is a commitment here to get to the bottom of what happened," Carney said.
Also testifying Wednesday was the first Obama administration official, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin. He said he learned an inspector general's audit was underway in 2012, but did not learn any details from J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. "I told him that he should follow the facts where they lead. I told him that our job is to stay out of the way and let him do his work," he said.
Republicans and Democrats on the oversight committee, without Lerner to question, focused most of their attention on Shulman, who ran the IRS for five years before leaving in November 2012.
Shulman, who also testified on Tuesday, again said that he never knew much about what his staff was doing to look for political activity in organizations seeking tax exemptions. He said he didn't take action when he learned about it in early 2012 since he was told the problem had ended.