There was no way Lois Lerner's part in the IRS saga would end quietly, even as she invoked her right to remain silent.
Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, boldly asserted this afternoon that Lerner "waived" her right to plead the Fifth Amendment when she made an opening statement at this morning's hearing. From POLITICO:
The California Republican said Lerner’s Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination was voided when she gave an opening statement this morning denying any wrongdoing and professing pride in her government service.
“When I asked her her questions from the very beginning, I did so so she could assert her rights prior to any statement,” Issa told POLITICO. “She chose not to do so — so she waived." ...
“The precedents are clear that this is not something you can turn on and turn off,” he told POLITICO. “She made testimony after she was sworn in, asserted her innocence in a number of areas, even answered questions asserting that a document was true … So she gave partial testimony and then tried to revoke that.” ...
“I understand from her counsel that there was a plan to assert her Fifth Amendment rights,” he continued. “She went ahead and made a statement, so counsel let her effectively under the precedent, waive — so we now have someone who no longer has that ability.”
Essentially, he argues, her opening statement, in which she proclaimed her innocence, constituted a forfeiture of Fifth Amendment protection because she spoke on her own behalf about her involvement in the matter. Issa intends to invite Lerner before the committee again in the hopes of conducting a proper grilling, and others--including Rep. Trey Gowdy--agree that she must now give testimony.
"Mr. Cummings just said we should run this hearing like a courtroom, and I agree with him," Gowdy thundered. "[Lerner] just testified. She just waived her Fifth Amendment right. You don't get to tell your side of the story and then not be subjected 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."
However, it's not so simple as that. Legal scholars say that the Fifth Amendment works differently in Congressional fact-finding hearings than in a court of law--one cannot simply conflate the two, as they exist for different purposes. Fifth Amendment expert James Duane gave the following explanation (h/t to Allahpundit for the link):
First, unlike in a trial, where she could choose to take the stand or not, Lerner had no choice but to appear before the committee. Second, in a trial there would be a justifiable concern about compromising a judge or jury by providing them with "selective, partial presentation of the facts." But Congress is merely pursuing information as part of an investigation, not making a definitive ruling on Lerner's guilt or innocence.
"When somebody is in this situation," says Duane, a Harvard Law graduate whose 2008 lecture on invoking the Fifth Amendment with police has been viewed on YouTube nearly 2.5 million times, "when they are involuntarily summoned before grand jury or before legislative body, it is well settled that they have a right to make a 'selective invocation,' as it's called, with respect to questions that they think might raise a meaningful risk of incriminating themselves."
In fact, Duane says, "even if Ms. Lerner had given answers to a few questions — five, ten, twenty questions — before she decided, 'That's where I draw the line, I'm not answering any more questions,' she would be able to do that as well." Such uses of selective invocation "happen all the time."
Unfortunately for Issa and company, it seems Lerner was within her rights to make a statement and then clam up. Of course, drawing greater attention to her silence could, ultimately, help in the investigation of the IRS; if they ask her back and she stonewalls, the public might want to know why. Hopefully, in any event, someone--anyone--will bear some legitimate responsibility for the whole affair, and lose the job they clearly never should have had in the first place.