Washington (CNN) –– House Republicans took two significant swings at former IRS official Lois Lerner on Wednesday, voting to refer her to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution and releasing previously confidential documents related to her role in the tax agency’s targeting of conservative groups.
Those documents indicate she paid specific attention to the Karl Rove-founded group Crossroads GPS and at one point mentioned or joked about taking a job with the pro-Obama group Organizing for America.
“This is so important that I think the public has a right to know,” House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp told reporters after the committee’s 23-14 vote. “We have a right to oversee the IRS and hold them accountable.”
Lerner ran the IRS office that determined whether organizations could get tax-exempt status. She stepped down last year after an inspector general’s report found the division used “inappropriate” criteria in separating out applications, including the phrase “tea party.” Democrats have pointed out that the term “progressive” was also used in some BOLO or “be on the lookout” notices inside the agency.
Republicans see Lerner as central in their investigation, especially on the question of whether the White House had a role in the targeting, and have long pushed for more information and documents to be made public about her.
They managed to do that themselves on Wednesday by using a rarely invoked piece of tax law and Congressional power.
Under the tax code, the Ways and Means chairman is one of only three Congressional officials who can access confidential taxpayer information. In that role, Camp has seen confidential files in the case which contain specific information about taxpayer groups. Camp says those files raise more suspicions against Lerner and wanted them to be released. The law allows that if the committee reports the information to the full House of Representatives.
To set up that move, the Ways and Means Committee planned to meet behind closed doors Wednesday. But tension rose before the executive session began, when the top Democrat on the committee, Sander Levin of Michigan, opposed the closed session in a loud voice.
“Chill out,” Camp responded.
“I am very chilled out,” Levin retorted.
Two hours later, staff unlocked the doors and the committee voted along party lines to send the Justice Department a letter of prosecution referral. The document alleges that Lerner misled investigators, put confidential taxpayer information at risk and used her power to improperly block conservative groups.
The letter itself is largely symbolic. The committee cannot force action by DOJ and the agency indicated the letter does not change the status of Lerner’s case.
“As the Department has repeatedly confirmed, there is already an active, ongoing investigation into the IRS’s handling of applications by tax-exempt organizations,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce. “It remains a high priority of the Department. We will review the letter once we receive it and take it under consideration.”
Regardless of the investigation, the committee by voting to send the missive officially reported the information in the letter to the full House of Representatives and allowed staff to then release 80 pages of related but previously confidential information.
Those documents include discussion by Lerner and others of how the agency should handle Crossroads GPS, the organization founded by Republican political consultant Karl Rove.
“The organization at issue is Crossroads GPS, which is on the top of the list of c4 spenders in the last two elections.” Lerner wrote in a January 2013 e-mail the committee released Wednesday. “C4” is a reference to the section of the tax code which makes community and civic organizations tax exempt.
Another page in the document packet shows that Lerner was considering the status of Organizing for Action, or OFA, an outgrowth of President Obama’s Organizing for America.
“Has (the application for) this org actually come in?” Lerner wrote in January 2013, responding to a news article about the organization. “We need to be careful to make sure we are comfortable.”
The released e-mails don’t give context on what Lerner meant by “comfortable,” but do indicate she was warm to the organization.
After a staffer mentioned that OFA will have a DC office, Lerner e-mailed back, “Oh-maybe I can get the DC office job!” The staffer then forwarded Lerner’s words to a third colleague at the IRS asking, “Retirement talk?”
Lerner’s attorney did not respond to specific documents or details released Wednesday but strongly criticized the vote and Republican move overall.
“This is just another attempt by Republicans to vilify Ms. Lerner for political gain,” William Taylor wrote in a statement. “Ms. Lerner has done nothing wrong.”
Democrats on the committee also criticized Republicans, saying that the committee letter to the Justice Department was politically motivated to support a key conservative group.
“I think this is the Karl Rove letter,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas.
Levin’s office stressed that the last time the committee disclosed confidential information was four decades ago, when it released a report about then President Richard Nixon’s taxes.
“This is unprecedented since 1974.” Levin said.
Camp did not respond directly when asked if the vote was political theater but said that the IRS targeting was itself unprecedented.
The committee’s vote comes one day before Republicans on the House Oversight Committee plan a vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. Lerner has repeatedly asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa of California believes she waived that right when she read a statement to the committee.
CNN Senior Producer Kevin Bohn and Justice Reporter Evan Perez contributed to this story