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Pursuing IRS Controversy, House GOP Pivots Toward Crossroads


Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee have voted to seek the criminal prosecution of former IRS official Lois Lerner. They allege that she violated several laws as the tax agency grappled with conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. The vote also marked a sharp turn in Republican strategy in the year-long controversy.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This is the first of two House committee meetings this week on the IRS controversy. Republicans contend that the agency deliberately investigated and stalled conservative groups who wanted status as tax-exempt social welfare organizations. For months, Republicans tried to connect the controversy to the Obama White House or to Obama appointees in the Treasury Department.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. Paulsen, aye. Mr. Marchant, Mr. Marchant, aye. Ms. Black...

OVERBY: But today, as Ways and Means Republicans request a federal prosecution, they're singling out one individual. That's Lois Lerner, a career employee when she headed the IRS division overseeing tax exempt groups.

The other big shift? Up till now criticism of the IRS focused on its treatment of Tea Party and other grassroots organizations. But today, the Ways and Means documents highlight just one group: the Washington-based powerhouse Crossroads GPS. The committee debated the request in closed session this morning.

Camp said it appeared that Lerner personally sought to have Crossroads GPS audited, and have its application for tax exempt status denied.

As the committee met, GOP strategist Karl Rove, the founder of Crossroads GPS, was on Fox News making the same points.

KARL ROVE: She led a effort to deny a 501(c)(4) tax exempt status to Crossroads GPS, subverting the IRS's own standards and procedures, in order to harass a conservative group.

OVERBY: And he elaborated.

ROVE: Lois Lerner picked us out of the crowd as a conservative advocacy group, and went after us in order to deny us a tax exempt status.

OVERBY: Soon after that, the committee voted on party lines in favor of pursuing the criminal case. Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, told reporters it was Lerner's fault for leaving unanswered questions.

REPRESENTATIVE DAVE CAMP: Frankly, if Lois Lerner would come forward and testify, we might know the answers.

OVERBY: The panel's ranking Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan was dismissive.

REPRESENTATIVE SANDER LEVIN: The Republicans are trying to keep an issue alive for November.

OVERBY: And Lerner's lawyer, William Taylor III, called the vote a Republican effort to, quote, "vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain."

As to why Crossroads GPS looms so large in this matter, the numbers tell the story. Crossroads GPS reported raising $180 million in 2012. That's according to an NPR analysis of its tax filings and campaign finance reports. In that two-year election cycle, Crossroads GPS spent $165 million on TV attacking President Obama and other Democrats. And it gave $26 million to another conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform, which also advertised heavily.

So today was part one of the Republicans' Lerner strategy. Part two comes tomorrow when the House Oversight Committee votes on citing her for contempt of Congress. The Republican majority on that panel contends that she gave up her constitutional right not to testify by invoking it incorrectly at two hearings.

The House would still have to act on both measures: the request for a criminal prosecution and the contempt of Congress citation. Expect more party-line votes.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.