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Justice Dept. won't seek contempt charges against former IRS official in tea party flap

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department won't seek criminal contempt charges against Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of a controversy over how the agency treated conservative political groups.

Ronald Machen, the outgoing U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, announced the decision in a March 31 letter to House Speaker John Boehner that was made public on Wednesday.

The GOP-controlled House had referred the case to federal prosecutors after lawmakers voted last year to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for her refusal to testify before a pair of committee hearings.

Lerner directed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. She set off a political firestorm in 2013 when she disclosed that agents had improperly singled out applications from tea party and other conservative groups for extra, sometimes burdensome scrutiny.

An inspector general's report found no evidence of a political conspiracy, instead blaming poor management at the agency. But many Republicans in Congress remain skeptical.

Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions at a hearing before the House Oversight Committee. But House Republicans claim she waived her constitutional right by delivering an opening statement in which she declared her innocence.

In his letter, Machen said a team of "experienced career prosecutors" determined that Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights by making "general claims of innocence." 

PHOTO: FILE - In this May 22, 2013 file photo, Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner listens during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Justice Department won’t seek criminal contempt charges against Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of a controversy over how the agency treated conservative political groups. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this May 22, 2013 file photo, Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner listens during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Justice Department won’t seek criminal contempt charges against Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of a controversy over how the agency treated conservative political groups. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Machen, whose last day in office was Wednesday, said prosecutors concluded that it would not be appropriate to send contempt charges to a grand jury because the Constitution protects her.

Lerner's attorney, William Taylor, said his client was gratified by the news "and looks forward to moving on with her life."

"It is unfortunate that the majority party in the House put politics before a citizen's constitutional rights," he said in a written statement.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leading member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that sought Lerner's testimony, said by failing to pursue charges against her, Machen "used his power as a political weapon to undermine the rule of law."

"This is wrong and a great example of why so many Americans distrust their government," Jordan said in a written statement.

Attorney General Eric Holder has resisted previous attempts to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter, saying it was unwarranted.

Lerner was placed on paid leave the day after she proclaimed her innocence at the committee hearing. She retired from the IRS four months later.


Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

  

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