By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Several death threats have been made against a former U.S. Internal Revenue Service officer who played a key role in last year's 'Tea Party' scandal at the IRS, the officer's lawyer said on Wednesday after a brief but dramatic congressional hearing.
Lois Lerner, who refused to testify at the hearing that dissolved in shouting and confusion, has been threatened at least six times since May 2013, when the IRS scandal became known, said her attorney, William Taylor.
At a news conference after the hearing, Taylor accused congressional Republicans of perpetuating a 10-month-old investigation of last year's controversy for political gain.
"The objective seems clear - to keep this controversy white-hot throughout the next election cycle," Taylor, a lawyer with the firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, told reporters.
Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the committee investigating Lerner and the tax agency, denied Taylor's accusation. No part of his continuing inquiry is political, Issa said, "Not a shred of it. Not a smidgeon of it."
Issa called Lerner to Capitol Hill for a public hearing to ask her questions. But she refused to answer and he gaveled the morning session to an abrupt close after only 15 minutes, cutting off remarks by the panel's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings.
Accusing Republicans of running a one-sided investigation, Cummings shouted after his microphone was turned off: "It is absolutely un-American!" Other committee Democrats shouted "shame" as Issa turned his back and left the hearing room.
Later, at a separate news briefing, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told reporters that Lerner could be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions.
PLEADING THE FIFTH
Lerner retired from the IRS in September. She had refused to answer questions from Issa once before, at a hearing in May 2013 before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Both times she cited her constitutional right not to testify.
The earlier session came just days after Lerner triggered the IRS scandal. In answer to a planted question from the audience at a legal conference, Lerner made a public apology in which she said the IRS had engaged in "inappropriate" targeting of political groups with the words "Tea Party" in their names.
Her unexpected act of contrition at the conference set off a furor on Capitol Hill, with Republican politicians accusing the IRS of unfairly singling out for extra review and delay some applications for tax-exempt status from conservative groups.
The acting head of the IRS lost his job over the matter, while numerous investigations were launched, including Issa's.
The California Republican quickly turned his inquiry into an attempt to link the White House to the IRS activity, but without success. The investigations revealed no clear political bias at the IRS and showed it had also closely reviewed applications from progressive political groups for tax-exempt status.
Lerner was interviewed in the last six months by prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department, Taylor said, added that it was unclear if that investigation was still ongoing.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Dan Grebler)