IRS official to take the Fifth before Congress

Back on May 10, Lois Lerner was the first IRS official to speak publicly about the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service; now it seems that she will be the first IRS official to take the Fifth Amendment in a Congressional probe of that targeting.

"Pleading the fifth is a direct slap in the face of every American taxpayer betrayed by the IRS’s gross abuse of power," said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL).

"Lois Lerner pleads the 5th? Are you kidding me?!" wrote Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) on Twitter as news of Lerner's decision bubbled through the halls of the Congress.

While Lerner does not want to answer questions, she will be at the Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight Committee, as Republicans sent her a subpoena to ensure her attendance.

Lerner was in a position of authority on this issue, as head of the Exempt Organizations unit at the IRS; she was also tapped to publicly release word of the issue earlier this month.

But the story of how it happened has changed dramatically since her remarks at a legal conference two Fridays ago.

At first, Lerner denied that the IRS had used a "planted question" from the audience, which prompted her to issue an apology to Tea Party groups, a move designed to get out in front of an inspector general's report due out the next week.

The woman who asked the question, Washington tax lawyer Celia Roady, denied at first that she had been urged to ask that question, but then admitted it several days later.

Last Friday, the outgoing Acting IRS Chief, Steven Miller, told a House panel that it had been a planned question.

But he didn't really finish his explanation until a Tuesday hearing, when Miller acknowledged that it had been his idea.

"We thought we would get out an apology," Miller told Senators. "Obviously the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea."

But the story didn't stop there.

Two hours later, the White House acknowledged that officials had discussions with the IRS about how best to get that story out as well.

Here is Q&A between reporters and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:

The only two instances that those discussions encompassed were the discussion about the possibility of a speech by, I believe, Ms. Lerner -- which, as I understand, did not happen -- and then the possibility that the acting commissioner would get a question in testimony about these issues and whether or not he would -- what he would say in response to that, again, with regard to the ongoing IG audit.  But we were not aware of what ultimately led to the first reporting on this on May 10th.

Q    After the speech by Lerner didn't happen and after Miller did not get the questions in testimony, did the White House ask Treasury what the plan then was for the IRS to announce this publicly?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, the general discussions as described had to do with the timing of the release of the information and the findings of the actual audit.  Our focus was I think, again, reflected in what I've said about this, on the expectation that when the report was finally completed and published, that that would be the appropriate time to respond to it and to direct any action in response to it.

Because, again, it's important to note that while there were discussions of draft findings and general conclusions, these kinds of things, history tells us, tend to change as they are finalized.  And it was very important in our view, in keeping with what I said yesterday is the cardinal rule around here that we not take any action that could even be seen to create the appearance of intervening in an ongoing investigation like this  -- in this case, an independent Inspector General audit.  And so, of course, we did not.

Q    Who did Treasury talk to here at the White House?

MR. CARNEY:  I think that's been reported.  It was Mark Childress, Deputy Chief of Staff.

Q    And he did not -- what did he do with the information?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, this was part of just trying to find out when and under what circumstances this information would be released, made public, and what those findings would be.  Again, we did not know until the actual report was published.

That was part of another day of shifting explanations by the White House as to what they had been told about the IRS targeting report and what actions officials had taken.

Meanwhile, the former IRS Chief Doug Shulman shed little light on the controversy as he testified before a Senate panel.

Asked at one point if he should issue an apology for the IRS targeting of conservative groups that went on while he was in charge, Shulman said he wasn't responsible for "creating a list that had inappropriate criteria on it."

That didn't satisfy Republicans, who will look for even more information at Wednesday's hearing.