Washington, DC (CBS) - After a two-hour meeting behind closed doors, the House Ways and Means Committee voted along partisan lines on Wednesday to officially urge Attorney General Eric Holder to consider criminal charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner.
The vote was based on evidence the committee uncovered while investigating the undue scrutiny that the IRS placed on conservative and liberal groups that filed for tax-exempt status during the 2012 elections. After the scandal broke last year, multiple congressional committees opened investigations into the matter and held several hearings to get to the bottom of it. Unlike other House committees, the Ways and Means committee had access to confidential taxpayer information that shed more light on the issue.
In the criminal referral letter it will send to Holder, the committee lays out three specific ways Lerner may have violated the law. Based on Lerner's communications and actions, the committee charges that Lerner improperly used her position to influence action against conservative groups like Crossroads GPS while showing leniency toward similar liberal groups like Priorities USA.
The committee also charges that, according to her communications, Lerner knowingly gave misleading statements to the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), the internal IRS watchdog, when TIGTA was investigating the controversy. Lastly, the committee says in its letter to Holder that Lerner used her personal email address to conduct official business, putting at risk confidential taxpayer information.
Upon releasing the letter to Holder, committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said in a statement that Lerner took "serious, unprecedented" actions" to unfairly target conservative groups.
"Today's action highlights specific wrongdoing for the Department of Justice to pursue," Camp said. "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."
In response to the letter, the Justice Department on Wednesday pointed out it's already investigating the controversy.
"As the Department has repeatedly confirmed, there is already an active, ongoing investigation into the IRS's handling of applications by tax-exempt organizations," Justice Department spokesperson Emily Pierce said in a statement. "It remains a high priority of the Department. We will review the letter once we receive it and take it under consideration."
Before the committee met on Wednesday, Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the committee said he had serious concerns with the letter to Holder, especially since the committee was wielding its congressional authority to make public taxpayer information that was previously private. Levin pointed out that in its ongoing investigation, the Justice Department has access to all the same information the committee does.
"You have hand selected information that you believe proves your case from the about 700,000 documents provided during this investigation," Levin said in his statement to Camp. "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."
The letter to Holder, Levin said, is part of the Republican Party's "year-long effort" to try to show that the White House was involved in the IRS scandal or that only conservative groups were targeted. "All of those claims were false," Levin said.
Some liberal groups were also inappropriately targeted by the IRS, but that didn't stop the GOP over the past year from seizing this issue as a conservative cause.
Lerner in particular has come under fire for her role in the controversy. On Thursday, the House Oversight Committee will vote separately on whether to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the committee's questions about the IRS scandal.
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