MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
Now, a remarkable hearing on Capitol Hill today that ended with its Republican chairman shutting off the microphones. The hearing was part of a House Republican probe alleging the IRS unfairly scrutinized conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, the IRS official who was called to testify today refused.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Lois Lerner was the IRS official overseeing the approval of tax exempt applications. And last spring, she was the one who admitted the agency had dragged out the process. Issa's Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms subpoenaed her. At a hearing last May, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify. The committee's Republican majority decided she waived that right because she first had proclaimed her innocence. So, for today's hearing, Issa did a stage-setting interview Sunday on Fox News.
REPRESENTATIVE: Her attorney indicates now that she will testify. We've been in a back-and-forth negotiation, but quite frankly, we believe that the evidence we've gathered causes her, in her best interest, to be someone who should testify.
OVERBY: But this morning...
, REPUBLICAN, CALIFORNIA: The committee will come to order.
OVERBY: ...it didn't work out that way. Issa first asked Lerner about an email she had written about Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that made undisclosed political money so important. Lerner's response...
LOIS LERNER: My counsel has advised me that I have not waived my constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment. And on his advice, I will decline to answer any question on the subject matter of this hearing.
, REPUBLICAN, CALIFORNIA: So you're not going to tell us who wanted to fix the problem caused by Citizens United?
LERNER: On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully exercise my Fifth Amendment right and decline to answer that question.
OVERBY: It went on from there: Issa asking sharp-edged questions, Lerner repeating her one response. After six minutes, Issa called it quits.
, REPUBLICAN, CALIFORNIA: I have no expectation that Ms. Lerner will cooperate with this committee and therefore we...
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Chairman, I have a statement. I have a procedural question, Mr. Chairman.
OVERBY: That was Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's ranking Democrat. For months, he's argued that Issa is more interested in pursuing the Obama White House than in finding the truth.
For the past year, the central Republican accusation in this investigation...
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: We're adjourned. Close it down.
OVERBY: The committee microphones went off. Media mics stayed on. The shouting match lasted almost as long as the hearing.
CUMMINGS: You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. There is absolutely something wrong with that, and it is absolutely un-American.
OVERBY: This afternoon, Lerner's lawyer, William Taylor III, held a press conference. He said he can't figure out why Issa said on TV that Lerner would testify.
WILLIAM TAYLOR III: I don't know where he got that information. I should stop short of accusing him of knowingly saying something false but it was flatly untrue.
OVERBY: Now, the oversight committee Republicans must decide whether to try citing Lerner for contempt of Congress. Speaker John Boehner seemed to endorse the idea.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: At some point, I believe that she has to testify or she should be held in contempt.
OVERBY: The only trouble is the House can't enforce contempt citations by itself. To do that, it needs the president's Justice Department. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.