WASHINGTON — Lois Lerner, at the center of the Internal Revenue Service scandal and in the crosshairs of Congress, stepped down on Monday before an internal review reportedly was set to remove her for mismanagement.
Lerner headed the Tax Exempt & Government Entities Division at the IRS, which grants tax-exempt status to non-profit organizations. IRS leaders have acknowledged that the office inappropriately targeted for extra scrutiny groups that had political-sounding names, especially conservative groups and tea party organizations.
“We can confirm today that Lois Lerner has retired. Under federal privacy rules, the IRS cannot comment further on individual employee matters,” the IRS said in a statement Monday afternoon.
Lawmakers said Lerner’s resignation came as an Accountability Review Board formed by temporary IRS chief Daniel Werfel was set to remove Lerner for mismanagement. Werfel has ushered out the door numerous IRS officials who had knowledge of the inappropriate targeting of applicants, which involved targeting by names and by special “be-on-the-lookout” lists that flagged groups for special scrutiny.
The scandal began after Lerner took a question at a legal conference in May, later revealed to be a planted question, in which she suggested some overzealous IRS employees had used inappropriate criteria to slow down requests for tax-exempt status from conservative groups. Hearings have shown that Washington headquarters was deeply involved in the process.
President Barack Obama in May fired Acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, who testified to Congress that he was aware that Lerner was answering a planted question in an attempt to take some sting out of a critical report that was due from the Treasury Department’s inspector general.
Republicans allege that the scrutiny was designed to slow applications from groups who opposed Obama’s re-election. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who heads the House Committee on Oversight, said Monday that his interest in securing testimony from Lerner remains unchanged.
“We still don’t know why Lois Lerner, as a senior IRS official, had such a personal interest in directing scrutiny and why she denied improper conduct to Congress,” Issa said in a statement. “Her departure does not answer these questions or diminish the committee’s interest in hearing her testimony.”
Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination when appearing before Issa’s committee, but not before offering a defense of her actions, leading Issa to conclude she’d waived her protections. Senate Republicans insist they will carry on the probe.
“Just because Lois Lerner is retiring from the IRS does not mean the investigation is over. Far from it,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
But Democrats claim that groups with “progressive” in their title were also subjected to extra scrutiny, something that’s emerged in congressional testimony, albeit on a smaller scale than the hundreds of conservative groups targeted.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, had already called for the dismissal of Lerner, who’d been on administrative leave.
“Lois Lerner is being held responsible for her gross mismanagement of the IRS tax-exempt division, which led to improper handling of applications for tax-exempt status, whether conservative and progressive,” Levin said in a statement. “As has been the case in all aspects of the current IRS investigation, the IRS internal review board found no evidence of political bias in her neglect of duties.”