Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Last week, as reported in the New York Times (see here), the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold in contempt Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official who after making a brief statement declaring her innocence invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege and refused to answer questions from the Committee members. The Committee action will be referred to the entire House of Representatives for its consideration. If the House votes to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt, it would refer the matter to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen, Jr., a Democrat who in my view is unlikely to pursue this politically-charged case.
The Committee vote was based on party lines, with the Republican majority voting against Ms. Lerner. A vote of the entire Congress, if it occurs, will most likely similarly be so based. Indeed, Representatives on the Committee took exaggerated and hyperbolic positions. Republican John J. Duncan claimed if Ms. Lerner's position were accepted, "every defendant . . . would testify and plead the Fifth so they couldn't be cross-examined . . . ." Democrat Elijah Cummings said if he were to vote to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt, it would "place him on the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy."
As I said before (see here), I believe that Ms. Lerner's general declaration of innocence, before she invoked the Fifth, does not constitute a waiver, but I do not believe the issue is crystal-clear. Lawyers who represent witnesses before legislative committees (or in other matters) should be cautious about taking such positions.