The House on Wednesday voted to hold a former Internal Revenue Service official in contempt for her refusal to answers questions about the agency's conservative-targeting scandal.
Lois Lerner headed the agency's Exempt Organizations division when it controversially targeted conservative nonprofit groups applying for tax-exempt status. But she has repeatedly refused to answer questions when called before Republican-led House committees investigating the scandal, citing her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination.
The GOP-run House, along a partisan-line vote of 231-187, passed a resolution holding her in contempt of Congress for not cooperating with the committees. Only six Democrats voted in support of the charge, while no Republicans voted against it.
Republicans say she waived her constitutional right to not comment when she made a statement last year denying any wrongdoing, and accuse her of trying to delay the investigation.
But Democrats, Lerner's legal staff and some independent legal experts dispute the claim, saying her denial wasn't enough to constitute a legal waiver.
"This has turned into a witch hunt," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
The matter now goes to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. A grand jury will review the charges, although it's uncertain if, or how, the Justice Department will respond.
Lerner faces up to a year in jail and fines up to $100,000 if found guilty of contempt of Congress, a criminal misdemeanor.
Lerner has admitted that organizations applying for tax-exempt status during the 2012 election season were singled out for heightened scrutiny if they had “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their titles. In some cases, groups were asked for their list of donors, which violates IRS policy in most case.
She apologized for the “inappropriate” practice and but said the cases were initiated by low-level workers in a field office.
An inspector general's report blamed poor management but found no evidence of a political conspiracy — a conclusion many Republicans don't believe.
"Only conservative groups were deliberately singled out because of their political beliefs and subjected to delays, inappropriate questions and unjust denials," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "The American people are owed a government they can trust, not a government that they fear. "
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has lead the charge against Lerner, accusing her of using the IRS as a political tool to single out and intimidate President Obama's "political enemies."
"While I am disappointed that Ms. Lerner decided to face our criminal justice system instead of testifying fully and truthfully before Congress, this vote is a step toward a level of accountability that the Obama administration has been unwilling to take," Issa said.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who has bitterly sparred with Issa over the issue, has countered that Issa and his fellow Republicans -- not Lerner or the administration -- are the ones using the controversy for political purposes.
"Republicans have spent the past year trying to prove these allegations … and we have not found any evidence of White House involvement or political motivation," Cummings said.
The Democrat also said the GOP's attacks on Lerner smack of 1950s-era McCarthyism, the practice of making accusations without proper regard for evidence made infamously by the late GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
"I cannot vote to violate an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say," Cummings said. "A much greater principle is at stake here today – the sanctity of Fifth Amendment rights for all citizens in this country."
Meanwhile Wednesday, the House also passed a Republican measure calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS controversy.
The nonbonding resolution was approved 250-168. Holder has denied previous requests by individual members of Congress.