(The Root) — It seems that Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS Exempt Organizations division who is at the center of the Internal Revenue Service scandal, can't get out of her own way.
First her apology for her division's targeted scrutiny of conservative groups — to neutralize fallout over a forthcoming audit (pdf) — backfired badly. Then, before a House panel on Wednesday, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify by reading a statement that sounded a lot like testimony, which could land her back in the committee's hot seat.
"I have not done anything wrong," Lerner told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee."
Hours after excusing Lerner, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he might recall her in response to a complaint by a fellow Republican member that Lerner forfeited her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when she gave the statement.
"She made assertions under oath" and "may have waived her Fifth Amendment rights," Issa said. Politico reported that Issa later determined that Lerner had waived her legal protections and would order her to reappear.
Of course, Lerner made the right decision for herself legally, but it doesn't help the Obama administration's efforts to tamp down the uproar and counter accusations that the targeting was politically motivated.
To most Americans, the optics aren't good: The central figure in a big scandal at the most unpopular government agency pleads the Fifth? She has to be hiding something.
A Washington Post/ABC News survey released Tuesday found that by a margin of 45 percent to 42 percent, more people accuse the Obama administration of "trying to cover up the facts" than those who believe the administration is "honestly disclosing what it knows."
The group that believes in a cover-up includes 73 percent of all Republican respondents and a plurality (47 percent) of independents. Meanwhile, 64 percent of Democrats say that the administration has been forthcoming.
A strong majority of all respondents condemn the IRS behavior as "inappropriate," including 51 percent who also consider it illegal. In addition, 56 percent of respondents believe that the IRS deliberately harassed conservative political groups, and 31 percent believe that it was "an administrative mistake."
Lerner's silence also intensifies the pressure on the IRS to disclose the origins of the targeting practice and those directly responsible for it. No such revelations sprang from the balance of Wednesday's hearing, which also featured testimony from former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin and Inspector General J. Russell George, who conducted the audit.
Shulman and Wolin denied that the targeting was politically motivated. George testified that he hasn't found any evidence of political motivation.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.