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Justice Department Won't Charge IRS' Lois Lerner With Criminal Contempt

Updated at 4:33 p.m. ET

The Justice Department will not pursue criminal contempt charges against former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was at the center of a political storm over the agency's alleged targeting of conservative groups. The announcement came from Ronald Machen, the outgoing U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to House Speaker John Boehner. (The letter is embedded at the bottom of this story.)

Here's the background: Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March 2014. But Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who headed that panel, said at the time that Lerner had waived that right by making an opening statement at a May 2013 hearing in which she proclaimed her innocence in short opening remarks.

The House voted later in 2014 to hold Lerner in criminal contempt. Machen's office was examining the case — and, in the letter dated March 31, he disagreed with Issa's interpretation.

"Ms. Lerner did not waive her Fifth Amendment privilege by making general claims of innocence," his office said in a statement. "The Constitution would provide Ms. Lerner with an absolute defense if she were prosecuted for contempt."

Wednesday's announcement grants a reprieve to the former IRS official, who at the time of the controversy led the agency's division that oversees tax-exempt groups. William Taylor, her attorney, said in a statement: "We are gratified but not surprised by today's news."

But as Politico notes, she and other officials from the Internal Revenue Service are still under investigation by the FBI for the IRS' targeting of conservative groups.

As NPR's Mark Memmott reported at the time: "[A] report ... concluded some conservative groups had been 'deliberately targeted.' (Democrats have released IRS documents showing liberal groups also came in for extra scrutiny.) A political furor erupted, eventually leading to the resignation of the agency's acting director. Lerner retired from the agency later in the year."

You can read the letter in full here:

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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