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Tax official: 'I did nothing wrong'

 Several dozen tea party activists and other concerned citizens, wave signs and small American flags as they march outside the main Internal Revenue S...
 Lois Lerner, head of the IRS unit that decides whether to grant tax-exempt status to groups, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22...

IRS Political Groups

Several dozen tea party activists and other concerned citizens, wave signs and small American flags as they march outside the main Internal Revenue S...

IRS Political Groups

Lois Lerner, head of the IRS unit that decides whether to grant tax-exempt status to groups, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 22...

The U.S. tax official at the center of the storm over the collection agency's targeting of conservative groups told Congress on Wednesday that she had done nothing wrong in the episode, and then invoked her constitutional right to refuse to answer lawmakers' questions.
In one of the most electric moments since the tax controversy erupted nearly two weeks ago, Lois Lerner defended herself during a brief appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee is investigating the agency's improper targeting of tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status from 2010 to 2012, and Lerner oversees the IRS office that processes applications for that designation.
"I have done nothing wrong," said a stern-looking Lerner, sitting next to three other witnesses and reading from a written statement. "I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee."
Republicans have used the scandal to attack President Barack Obama as he tries to push through his second-term legislative agenda ahead of next year's elections for Congress. The controversy also has breathed new life into the small-government tea party movement, whose influence had been waning.
Members of Congress have angrily complained that Lerner and other high-ranking IRS officials did not inform lawmakers that conservative groups were targeted, even though legislators asked the tax agency multiple times about it after local tea party groups told lawmakers that they were being treated unfairly.
Lerner then said she would invoke her constitutional right to avoid incriminating herself. After Darrell Issa, the Republican committee chairman, asked her to reconsider, Lerner said, "I will not answer any questions or testify about the subject matter of this committee's meeting."
Nine minutes after she began speaking, Issa excused Lerner and she left the hearing room through a rear door, escorted by her lawyer and several other men. The men quickly whisked Lerner into an elevator, where several of the men physically pushed back television camera operators who were trying to film them.
Lerner's refusal to answer questions was not a surprise. Her attorney, William W. Taylor III, wrote a letter to the committee this week saying she would do so.
Issa and other members of the committee were not pleased with Lerner's decision to not testify. Even before she spoke, Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, warned the witnesses that their refusal to cooperate would result in the eventual appointment of a special prosecutor to examine the case.
"There will be hell to pay if that's the route we choose to go down," Lynch said.
Lerner revealed the agency's targeting two weeks ago and apologized for the actions. Since then, Washington has been awash in questions about why the nonpartisan tax agency focused on conservative groups, who instigated it and whether it was politically motivated _ which many Republicans suspect but participants have rejected.
J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general who focuses on taxes and who released a report last week detailing the targeting, has also said there is no evidence that the screening was politically motivated.
Lerner, 62, is an attorney who joined the IRS in 2001. She has come under fire from members of both parties, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, who said in an interview Tuesday that she should lose her job.