Story highlights

The House Oversight Committee will vote on holding an ex-IRS official in contempt

Lois Lerner ran the division that ruled on tax-exempt status for nonprofit groups

She invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about targeting conservative groups

Washington CNN  — 

Engaging a rarely used power, House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa announced his committee will vote next Thursday on whether to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s targeting of conservative organizations.

“Documents and testimony point to Lois Lerner as a senior IRS official responsible for conduct that deprived Americans of their rights to free speech and equal protection under the law,” wrote the California Republican in a statement released Thursday.

Lerner ran the IRS division that determined tax-exempt status for nonprofit organizations. An IRS inspector general’s report concluded that her division used “inappropriate” search terms to flag some conservative applications, including “Tea Party” and “patriot.” Democrats have pointed out that some liberal terms, such as “progressive,” were also on the list.

The contempt vote caps a year of dramatic back-and-forth in House Republicans’ investigation into the targeting. GOP leaders, including Issa, have focused on whether higher-ranking officials, including any at the White House, played a role blocking conservative organizations’ applications. Thus far, no evidence has shown that the effort to flag political groups went beyond Lerner and her employees.

Issa has said that Lerner’s testimony could prove critical. But the former IRS official has repeatedly refused to answer the committee’s questions, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

That normally might protect her from contempt of Congress charges. But Republicans charge that Lerner waived her constitutional right by first reading a statement to the committee asserting her innocence.

“I believe Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment privilege,” Issa said in a hearing last June. “She did so when she chose to make a voluntary opening statement.” Republicans argue and cite some case law showing that an individual cannot apply the Fifth Amendment in some instances and not others.

But the case law on the Fifth Amendment is nuanced, and Lerner’s attorney and House Democrats have fervently disagreed with Republicans’ conclusion. They insist she is protected by the Fifth Amendment. The debate could spark a potential legal battle.

Overall, Democrats call the investigation a witch hunt and the contempt vote a publicity move.

“This contempt vote appears geared more toward generating more press for (Issa), rather than working responsibly with committee members to seek facts,” said Jennifer Hoffman, who is the spokesman for the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

Lerner’s attorney’s office said it had no comment yet on the upcoming committee vote.

The contempt resolution is expected to pass the Republican-led Oversight Committee Thursday morning. The House is in recess the following week, meaning the soonest a contempt vote could hit the House floor is the week of April 24.

Even without the Fifth Amendment issue, it’s not clear how far the case will go.

After a House vote to find Lerner in contempt, the process would leave Republicans’ hands and go to the U.S. attorney for Washington, who would be directed to call a grand jury.

That is where the last contempt of Congress charge ended. In 2012, the Republican House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun controversy. The White House asserted executive privilege at that time, and the Justice Department announced it would not prosecute.

The Obama administration has not claimed executive privilege in Lerner’s case, but the Justice Department still retains the ability to determine whether her actions deserve prosecution.

The penalty for contempt of Congress is up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Since 1980, nine individuals have been held in contempt by the House of Representatives.

CNN Senior Producer Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.