A few weeks ago, when news broke that the IRS had apparently been targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny, some liberal commentators claimed that there was really nothing here to see. It is not surprising, they said, that there would be a lot of scrutiny of conservative groups applying for tax exempt status, since there was an explosion of such groups in recent years. Moreover, others noted, the law governing the tax exempt status these groups were seeking is difficult to apply. It allows the groups to engage in some political activity, but not too much. This, it was said, almost guarantees that the IRS would have to ask a lot of intrusive questions of groups applying for the status.
That all sounds somewhat reasonable, but I wonder what such defenders of the IRS say now that a top official, Lois Lerner, has taken the 5th Amendment before a House committee investigating these matters?
At any rate, it is hard to see how such an official can remain at her post. After all, pleading the 5th — which specifically means invoking a right not to give information that would tend to incriminate oneself — can only mean a few things, none of which seems to be compatible with continuing in a position of public authority and public trust.
It might mean that Lerner is conscious of having done things that would expose her to criminal liability. This, indeed, is the most obvious reason for pleading the 5th Amendment, despite Lerner’s opening remark denying that she had done anything wrong. Certainly a person conscious of potentially criminal wrongdoing should not continue in a high level position at the IRS.
But Lerner might not really think she did anything criminally wrong. In this case, of course, she is abusing her 5th Amendment right in order to avoid telling what she knows to the House of Representatives. Why would she do this? One obvious possibility is that, while she is conscious of no illegal conduct, she nevertheless is herself guilty of, or knows about, conduct at the IRS that would be disgraceful and embarrassing to her and the administration. But, again, if this is the case this is on its face evidence that her continued presence on the job is unacceptable. By taking the 5th she is at least saying that her behavior, or that of other IRS officials, cannot stand up to public scrutiny.
Die hard defenders of the administration might think of a third possibility. Perhaps she is conscious of no illegal or even untoward conduct, but just does not want to cooperate with an investigation led by Republicans in the House. That’s possible, although this, again, would be an abuse of her 5th Amendment rights, since she would be claiming to protect herself from a criminal liability that even she does not really think exists. At any rate, such behavior ought to get one removed. It shows contempt for the House and by extension for the American people, who understandably would like to know more about what was going on at the IRS, in light of the recent news reports.