Ronald Machen Jr. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)
Tuesday was Ronald Machen Jr.’s last day as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. He didn’t leave quietly.
Just before he left, Machen announced that one former public official under investigation by his office was off the hook. No, not former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, whose 2010 campaign remains the subject of an ongoing inquiry. Machen told congressional lawmakers on Tuesday that prosecutors wouldn’t seek criminal contempt charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner.
Lerner (left) was summoned before Congress to testify about reports that the IRS improperly targeted certain political groups that applied for tax-exempt status. She invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during hearings in 2013 and 2014 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
House Republicans held her in contempt last year, arguing that she waived her right not to testify by giving an opening statement. The House referred the matter for investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.
In the March 31 letter to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Machen said that a “team of experienced career prosecutors” who investigated the matter determined that Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment privilege by providing an opening statement. Politico first reported Machen’s decision.
Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor III, said in a written statement that Lerner was “pleased to have this matter resolved and looks forward to moving on with her life.”
“Anyone who takes a serious and impartial look at this issue would conclude that Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment rights. It is unfortunate that the majority party in the House put politics before a citizen’s constitutional rights,” Taylor, a Zuckerman Spaeder partner, said.
Machen’s top deputy, Vincent Cohen Jr., took over Wednesday as acting U.S. attorney. Cohen joined the office from Schertler & Onorato in 2010. He previously served in the U.S. attorney’s office in the late 1990s under then-U.S. Attorney Eric Holder Jr. before going into private practice.
Prosecutors last brought criminal charges against a public official found in contempt in 1983. Congress held Rita Lavelle, who oversaw the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, in contempt for refusing to testify about management of the program. She was acquitted of contempt of Congress in court, but was found guilty in late 1983 of lying to Congress.
Other high-ranking public officials have been held in contempt by Congress since then, but none have faced criminal prosecution.