The House Ways and Means Committee voted Wednesday to send a criminal referral letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to determine whether Lois Lerner, the former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations unit, violated the law.

Lerner was the first IRS official to reveal last spring that the agency had been using terms like “Tea Party” and “Patriot” to screen out applications from organizations seeking tax-exempt status. The resulting furor led to a series of committee hearings and the ouster of Lerner along with several other top IRS officials. Lerner declined to testify at two congressional hearings on Fifth Amendment grounds, although her attorney has reportedly been seeking immunity for her to provide testimony.

In the letter, Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said the committee was acting under the authority granted to it in Section 6103 of the Tax Code. Camp, in sending the letter on behalf of the committee, urged Holder to review the evidence uncovered through the committee’s investigation to determine whether Lerner violated criminal statutes.

He said the Ways and Means Committee uncovered three specific acts undertaken by Lerner that may have violated one or more criminal statutes documented in the letter. Camp contended that Lerner used her position to improperly influence agency action against only conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law. She allegedly showed extreme bias and prejudice towards conservative groups, he argued. The letter purported to lay out evidence on how Lerner targeted the conservative organization Crossroads GPS as well as other right-leaning groups, while turning a blind eye to similarly organized liberal groups, such as Priorities USA, according to Republicans on the committee.

Lerner also allegedly impeded official investigations by providing misleading statements in response to questions from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, according to Camp. He contended that Lerner also risked exposing, and may actually have disclosed, confidential taxpayer information, in apparent violation of Section 6103 of the Tax Code by using her personal email to conduct official business.

If convicted, Lerner could face up to 11 years in prison.

Upon releasing the letter, Camp stated, “This investigation has uncovered serious, unprecedented actions taken by Lois Lerner that deprived conservative groups of their rights under the Constitution. Almost a year ago we learned that the IRS subjected certain groups to extra scrutiny because of their political beliefs.  At the time, Lois Lerner shamefully attempted to blame the mistreatment on low-level employees in Cincinnati. The investigation to date has demonstrated that the targeting did not happen until IRS headquarters in D.C. intervened. Today’s action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue.  DOJ has a responsibility to act, and Lois Lerner must be held accountable. It is also important that the American people know what really occurred at the IRS, so this powerful agency cannot target American taxpayers ever again.”

Camp’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., took exception to Camp’s action in a speech before the vote on sending the criminal referral letter to the Justice Department.

“I was among the first to call for Lois Lerner to resign and for her to be relieved from her duties,” he said. “This executive session isn’t about any of us condoning the mismanagement at the IRS tax exempt division. And, it certainly isn’t about any of us condoning potential criminal activity. Indeed, the Justice Department is investigating the entire matter to determine whether there should be criminal charges. The Justice Department has access to all of the same documents as we do. They have the ability to conduct interviews of all involved and to compel testimony.”

Levin said Camp’s action would harm the reputation of the committee. “I don’t understand why you are doing this, Mr. Chairman,” he said. “You have hand-selected information that you believe proves your case from the about 700,000 documents provided during this investigation. You have given members 24 hours to look at it. And, you have not provided them the necessary authority to look at any other documents, beyond what is included in the notebooks, so that members could reach a conclusion on their own. Today, you are asking the members of this committee to approve a letter urging the Department of Justice to pursue a criminal investigation of Lois Lerner, one that is already ongoing, one that her lawyers have indicated she has already been interviewed as part of. And you are doing so in a manner that makes public previously protected taxpayer information. Indeed, Mr. Chairman, this committee enacted these taxpayer protections to prevent the use of taxpayer information for any other use than the administration of our tax laws.  The provision under which you claim authority to release this information—Section 6103(f)—was enacted in response to the inappropriate use of taxpayer information by the Nixon Administration. The very disclosure that you put to a vote today violates the very taxpayer protections this committee meant to create. And, when was the only time on record that this committee has taken this unprecedented step? In 1974, Chairman Mills—after an audit by the Joint Committee on Taxation of President Nixon’s tax returns, which was requested by President Nixon—made a bipartisan report to the House of the President’s tax returns, thus making them public. It should give all of us serious concern that we are taking our committee down this road today.”

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