Lerner says she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and never lied to Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — At the center of a

political storm, an Internal Revenue Service supervisor whose agents

targeted conservative

groups swore Wednesday she did nothing wrong, broke no laws and

never lied to Congress. Then she refused to answer lawmakers'

further questions, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to

incriminate herself.

In one of the most electric moments since

the IRS controversy erupted nearly two weeks ago, Lois Lerner

unwaveringly — but

briefly — defended herself before the House Oversight and

Government Reform Committee. But she would say no more, citing legal

advice in the face of a federal investigation.

Members of Congress have angrily complained

that Lerner and other high-ranking IRS officials did not inform them

that conservative

groups were singled out, even though lawmakers repeatedly asked

the IRS about it after hearing complaints from local tea party

groups.

The Justice Department has launched a

criminal probe of the murky events over the 2010 and 2012 election

campaigns, saying

it is looking into potential civil rights violations. Top IRS

officials say Lerner didn't tell them for nearly a year after

she learned that agents working under her had improperly singled

out conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they

applied for tax-exempt status.

Under unrelenting criticism — most

forcefully from Republicans but also from Democrats and people outside

politics — administration

officials from President Barack Obama on down have denounced the

targeting as inappropriate and inexcusable.

Lerner, who heads the IRS division that

handles applications for tax-exempt status and first disclosed the

targeting at a

legal conference, has said the same. But she also spoke up for

herself Wednesday, sitting stern-faced at the committee witness

table.

"I have not done anything wrong," she said. "I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations,

and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee."

By one lawmaker's count, Lerner was asked 14 times by members of Congress or their staffs without revealing that the groups

had been targeted. On Wednesday, lawmakers didn't get a chance to ask Lerner again.

Nine minutes after she began speaking, Lerner was excused, though committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he might

recall her. He and other Republicans say they believe she forfeited her Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify by giving

an opening statement in which she proclaimed her innocence, but several law professors were skeptical they could make that

stick.

Issa later said he would consult with others — including her lawyer and House attorneys — before determining whether to summon

her again, hopefully deciding by the time Congress returns from an upcoming recess early next month.

"She's a fact witness with a tremendous amount that she could tell us," Issa said.

By leaving early, Lerner missed out on a six-hour grilling that three other witnesses endured.

The hearing was Congress' third on the IRS

controversy in the past week. Taken together, testimony by current and

former officials

indicates that Lerner's actions were consistent with theirs: Once

officials learned that conservative groups were being targeted,

they say they made sure the practice was stopped, but they were

slow to tell superiors, if they did so at all.

They also didn't tell Congress, until Lerner herself made it public at a May 10 legal conference.

"Think about it. For more than a year, the IRS knew that it had inappropriately targeted groups of Americans based on their

political beliefs without mentioning it," Issa said. "There seemed to be a culture of insulation that puts higher priority

on deniability than addressing blatant wrongdoing."

The hearings have been notable for what they

have not shown as well as what they have. No evidence has emerged that

anyone

outside the IRS, including the White House, directed agents to go

after conservative groups. And there has been no evidence

that anyone outside the IRS was made aware that the groups were

being targeted until a few weeks before the inspector general

released his report on the situation last week.

Still, Obama's top spokesman said Wednesday the White House is facing "legitimate criticisms" for its shifting accounts about

who knew what, and when they knew it.

Press secretary Jay Carney first said only Obama's top lawyer knew the IRS was being investigated in the weeks before the

inspector general's report was released. Later, he said the chief of staff and other top officials also knew.

"There have been some legitimate criticisms about how we're handling this," Carney said. "And I say 'legitimate' because I

mean it."

The report said IRS agents in a Cincinnati

office started targeting tea party and other conservative groups for

additional

scrutiny in March or April of 2010. By August 2010, "tea party"

became part of a "be on the lookout," or "BOLO" list of terms

to flag for additional screening.

Lerner learned in June 2011 that agents in

her division were singling out groups with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in

their

applications for tax-exempt status, the report said. She ordered

agents to scrap the criteria immediately, but later it evolved

to include groups that promoted the Constitution and the Bill of

Rights.

"After that date, Ms. Lerner had 14

opportunities — in direct and distinct interactions with the Ways &

Means Committee and

with this committee — 14 different occasions where she could have

set the record straight, and she chose not to do it," said

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Lerner, 62, is an attorney who joined the

IRS in 2001. She expressed pride in her 34-year career in federal

government, which

has included work at the Justice Department and Federal Election

Commission, and she said she currently oversees 900 workers

and a budget approaching $100 million.

She has faced no discipline for her actions, IRS officials said. A new acting commissioner is conducting a 30-day review of

the division.

J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration, has blamed ineffective management for

allowing agents to improperly target conservative groups for more than 18 months.

On Wednesday, he hinted that there may be

more revelations to come. He told the oversight committee that his

office has since

uncovered other questionable criteria used by agents to screen

applications for tax-exempt status. But he refused to elaborate.

"As we continue our review of this matter,

we have recently identified some other BOLOs that raised concerns about

political

factors," George said. "I can't get into more detail at this time

as to the information that is there because it's still incomplete.

Lerner's supervisors said they, too, were

kept in the dark for nearly a year. One of those supervisors was Deputy

IRS Commissioner

Steven Miller, who later became acting head of the agency. He was

forced last week to resign.

Miller said he first learned in May 2012

that conservative groups had been singled out. He promptly told his

boss, IRS Commissioner

Douglas Shulman.

But for the second straight day, Shulman

testified that he didn't tell anyone in the Treasury Department or the

White House

because he was awaiting the results of an audit by the agency's

inspector general. The IRS is part of the Treasury Department.

Shulman stood by that Wednesday, and was pressed once again by lawmakers about why he didn't say anything.

"At the time I learned about this list, I felt I was taking the appropriate actions and that my course was the proper one,

and I still feel that way today," Shulman said.

Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, left in November when his five-year term expired. Miller became acting

commissioner when Shulman left.

In the spring of 2012, George told a top

Treasury official that the inspector general's office was investigating

complaints

by conservative groups. George, however, did not reveal any

details about what he had uncovered, said Deputy Treasury Secretary

Neal Wolin, who also testified Wednesday.

"He told me only of the fact that he had undertaken such an audit, and he did not provide any findings," Wolin testified.

"I told him that he should follow the facts wherever they lead. I told him that our job is to stay out of the way and let

him do his work."

Wolin said he didn't tell any of his superiors at Treasury or the White House about the investigation.