It's not every day a witness testifying on Capitol Hill invokes the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But that's what IRS official Lois Lerner did this morning at the advice of her attorney, William Taylor III, a Zuckerman Spaeder white-collar defense partner in Washington.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws," Lerner said in her opening statement to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Seated directly behind Lerner was Taylor, a founding partner of Zuckerman Spaeder. Taylor is no stranger to headline-grabbing cases. His client list includes prominent names such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund accused of sexual assault; Kenneth Langone, the former chair of the New York Stock Exchange, and William Welch II, the former U.S. Department of Justice official investigated for prosecutorial misconduct in Ted Stevens case.
More recently, Taylor has represented D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) in his fight with the D.C. Board of Ethics and Accountability that he violated the D.C. Code of Conduct.
Today’s House oversight hearing was scheduled in response to a May 14 report by the Treasury Inspector General on the unfair targeting of certain political groups that applied for tax exempt status. Lerner heads the IRS exempt organizations office.
"While I would very much like to answer the committee's questions today, I have been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify or answer questions related to the subject matter of this hearing," Lerner said told committee members.
After Lerner finished her opening statement, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked if she would reconsider her decision not to testify or answer the committee's questions.
"At this point, I believe you have not asserted your rights, but effectively waived your rights," Issa said. "Would you please seek counsel for further guidance on this matter while we wait?"
After turning around and exchanging a few words with Taylor, Lerner faced the committee and said that she "will not answer any questions or testify about the subject matter of this committee's meeting."
In response, Issa dismissed Lerner and her counsel. But before Lerner and Taylor could leave the hearing room, U.S. Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asked to say a few words.
"Mr. Cummings said that we should run this like a courtroom and I agree with him," Gowdy said referring to part of Representative Elijah Cummings' (D-Md.) opening statement. "She just testified. She just waived her Fifth Amendment right to privilege. You don't get to tell your side of the story and then not be subject to cross examination. That's not the way it works. She waived her right to Fifth Amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement. She ought to stand here and answer our questions."
Gowdy's statement elicited a few rounds of applause from some members of the audience.
"With all respect for my good friend Mr. Gowdy, I said I would like to see it run like a federal court," Cummings said. "Unfortunately, this is not a federal court and she does have a right and I think we have to adhere to that."
With that, Issa dismissed Lerner but warned that she may be recalled to testify.