IRS Tea Party Reuters 2
In the tax-exemption scandal, the IRS is facing perhaps its biggest institutional crisis since its inception. Reuters

Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division at the heart of the scandal involving the targeting of conservative groups, has invoked her Fifth Amendment rights.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday said Lerner’s lawyer has informed the committee that she will refuse to answer questions from lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday. In the meantime, committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has issued a subpoena for her to appear at the hearing.

“Chairman Issa remains hopeful that she will ultimately decide to testify tomorrow about her knowledge of outrageous IRS targeting of Americans for their political beliefs,” said Ali Ahmad, a communications adviser in the committee.

Lerner’s name has been in the media since May 10, when she publicly apologized for the agency’s wrongful targeting of conservative groups. She said low-level employees in Cincinnati targeted nonprofits applying for tax-exempt status by inappropriately singling out those with the words “tea party” and patriots” in their names.

The improper methods were used between 2010 and 2012 causing years of delay for some. The IRS also sent letters to nearly 100 conservative groups inappropriately asking for donor information, among other things. While this was being done, applications from liberal groups for similar status were being approved, according to a report from USA Today. This has led to the perception that the IRS is not the nonpartisan, nonpolitical agency it should be.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have blasted the agency for its actions. Multiple public hearings have been conducted since the revelation from Lerner and the subsequent audit report from the Treasury Inspector General for Taxation. Congress is now trying to find out who knew what, when they knew it, and how the practice got started.

Former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman had no explanation for how that type of culture developed at the agency when he appeared before the Senate Finance Committee earlier Tuesday. He was IRS commissioner from March 2008 to November 2012, while the apparent targeting was taking place.

“I can’t say that I know that answer,” he told lawmakers. “I am six months out of office. When I left the IG was looking into this to gather all the facts.”

As to why he didn't inform Congress when he was first aware of the problem and corrected his testimony last year, Shulman said he thought he did what was best. That is, to let the inspector general complete his audit.

Shulman, who was speaking for the first time since the scandal erupted, said he deeply regrets what happened and “that it happened on my watch.”