WASHINGTON -- The Internal Revenue Service official at the center of the storm over the agency's targeting of conservative groups told Congress on Wednesday that she had done nothing wrong in the episode, and then invoked her constitutional right to refuse to answer lawmakers' questions.
In one of the most electric moments since the IRS controversy erupted nearly two weeks ago, Lois Lerner defended herself during a brief appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee is investigating the agency's improper targeting of tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012, and Lerner oversees the IRS office that processes applications for that designation.
"I have done nothing wrong," said a stern-looking Lerner, sitting next to three other witnesses and reading from a written statement. "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 committee."
Members of Congress have angrily complained that Lerner and other high-ranking IRS officials did not inform lawmakers that conservative groups were targeted, even though legislators asked the IRS multiple times about it after local tea party groups told lawmakers they were being treated unfairly.
Lerner then said she would invoke her constitutional right to avoid incriminating herself.
"One of the basic functions of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals, and that is the protection I am invoking today," she said.
After Oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked her to reconsider, she said, "I will not answer any questions or testify about the subject matter of this committee's meeting."
Nine minutes after she began speaking, Issa excused Lerner but said she might be recalled, saying he might explore whether she would testify later if granted some immunity.
Lerner left the hearing room through a rear door, escorted by her lawyer and several other men. The men quickly whisked Lerner into an elevator, where several of the men physically pushed back television camera operators who were trying to film them.
Lerner's refusal to answer questions was not a surprise. Her attorney, William W. Taylor III, wrote a letter to the committee this week saying she would do so.
Issa and other members of the committee were not pleased with Lerner's decision to not testify. Even before she spoke, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., warned the witnesses that their refusal to cooperate would result in the eventual appointment of a special prosecutor to examine the case.
"There will be hell to pay if that's the route we choose to go down," Lynch said.
Lerner revealed the agency's targeting two weeks ago and apologized for the actions. Since then, Washington has been awash in questions about why the nonpartisan IRS focused on conservative groups, who instigated it and whether it was politically motivated -- which many Republicans suspect but participants have rejected.
J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general who focuses on taxes, released a report last week that detailed the targeting and called it inappropriate. He has said there is no evidence that the screening was politically motivated or that IRS officials were influenced by others, and blamed poor management by IRS officials for allowing the screening system to be instituted.
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 said she currently oversees 900 workers and a budget approaching $100 million.