WASHINGTON -- Lois Lerner, the mid-level Internal Revenue Service official at the center of a controversy over treatment of small-government groups, Wednesday invoked her right not to testify after reading a statement denying that she had committed any crimes.
"I am very proud of the work that I have done in government," she said Wednesday, reading a statement at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. "I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws."
The U.S. Constitution allows people to stay silent to avoid incriminating themselves.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Lerner's decision to read a statement may have represented a waiver of her rights. He then allowed her to leave.
The actions of employees who worked for Lerner have led to a scandal at the tax agency that has cost two people their jobs and led to four congressional investigations and a criminal probe. Small-government groups, particularly those with "Tea Party" or "patriot" in their names, were singled out for extra scrutiny, and IRS executives were unable to stop the selective screening for 18 months.
Issa and other lawmakers have accused Lerner of making false statements to Congress, which is a crime. She said she had done no such thing.
Issa also said Wednesday that the inspector general who examined the matter "failed" to inform Congress after learning what had happened.
Issa, as he opened the third congressional hearing on the IRS, criticized the agency for not informing lawmakers what it knew after senior officials learned about its actions in May 2012.
"Congress was misled," Issa said. "The American people were misled."
The Treasury inspector general for tax administration, Russell George, released a May 14 report showing that the IRS had more closely examined tax-exempt groups whose names included words such as "Tea Party" and "patriot."
George said he hasn't been able to determine who came up with those criteria.
"We have had some difficulty in terms of getting clarity from some of the employees we've interviewed," he said, adding that further inquiries could make those employees more forthcoming.
George said Wednesday that he waited to ensure the report would be fair and that the IRS could respond to allegations.
"It would be impractical for us to give you partial information which may not be accurate," he said.
Issa requested the report last year after tea party groups complained about the questionnaires they were receiving from the IRS. He said inspectors general are required to inform lawmakers of significant issues and that he had specifically asked for such an update in August 2012.
Douglas Shulman, who was commissioner of the IRS until November 2012, had told lawmakers in March 2012 that there was "absolutely" no targeting.
Testifying Wednesday, he said he stands by his decision not to tell Congress what he knew, partly because the activity had been stopped by then and he knew that the inspector general was investigating.
"I didn't have anything concrete," he said. "I didn't have a full set of facts to come back to Congress or the committee with."
At Tuesday's hearing, Shulman refused to apologize. Today, he said, "I'm very sorry that this happened while I was at the Internal Revenue Service."
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, criticized "gross incompetence and mismanagement" at the IRS for failing to have clear rules for how to review applications for tax-exempt status.
Groups seeking tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code don't have to disclose their donors. Under Treasury rules, such groups can't have politics as their primary purpose.
Oversight committee staff members Tuesday interviewed Holly Paz, a mid-level IRS official.
The committee also released transcripts of written answers that two IRS officials -- Lerner and Joseph Grant -- provided to the inspector general.
The answers are consistent with the findings in the inspector general's report. Parts of the responses, including Lerner's explanation of the origins of the tougher scrutiny, are redacted.