A six-hour congressional hearing Wednesday on Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups lacked one thing -- answers from the woman who heads the unit responsible for a scandal dominating Washington politics.
Lois Lerner, the IRS director of exempt organizations, invoked her constitutional right against self-incrimination after she denied any wrongdoing in a brief statement to the House Oversight Committee.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee." Lerner said, adding that she refused to "answer any questions or testify about the subject matter of this committee's meeting."
The move set off a procedural debate, with some Republicans contending her statement amounted to testimony that effectively waived her Fifth Amendment protection.
Panel Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa dismissed Lerner but later said he might recall her to insist "that she answer questions in light of a waiver." At the end, the California Republican declared the hearing in recess, rather than adjourned.
Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration with Lerner's move and what they characterized as unsatisfactory testimony from other IRS officials who have testified in three congressional hearings so far into the targeting issue.
Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts warned that a failure by the IRS to be more cooperative would lead to a special prosecutor, adding that "there will be hell to pay if that is the route we chose to go down."
In addition to the inquiries by the three congressional panels, the Justice Department also has launched an investigation of whether laws were broken by IRS workers who used a list of criteria including names such as "tea party" to determine levels of scrutiny for groups seeking tax-exempt status.
J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general who wrote the report, dropped a bombshell when he said there may have been other politically oriented lists of criteria used by the IRS beyond the one that targeted conservative groups. He provided no further details, saying he would continue his review and it could expand to possible criminal activity.
Republicans contend the controversy is part of a pattern of a White House gone wild and repeatedly brought up other issues dogging President Barack Obama, such as the erroneous administration talking points in the days after the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya last September.
Democrats insisted that what happened -- while unacceptable -- was initiated within the IRS instead of being a practice called for or supported by the president or others in his administration.
In response to George's report, which was made public on May 14, Obama demanded the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, and appointed Office of Management and Budget Official Danny Werfel to fill the post through September.
Werfel, a veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations, began his new job Wednesday with a message to IRS staff that called for working together to restore public trust in the agency.
Noting his 30-day deadline to report back to Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Werfel said he would begin by "meeting with many of you" in coming days.
George told the House panel that he and Werfel would meet next week to discuss recommendations in his report for better training and management of the IRS tax-exempt unit.
At Wednesday's hearing, questioning ranged from insistent attempts to figure out what officials knew when to partisan posturing.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin confirmed he first learned in the summer of 2012 that George was reviewing the IRS unit that handles requests for tax-exempt status, but he insisted he had no details of the substance of the issue.
Wolin repeatedly answered no when asked if he shared information about the matter with anyone else in the Obama administration or the president's re-election campaign at that time.
"In 2012, you're looking at this election year and you don't pick up the phone and say to the, your contacts at the White House ... say just as a heads up, this could actually hit the fan in a presidential year?" asked GOP Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
When Wolin replied he didn't, McHenry asked: "Okay. And you don't tell anybody in the office of counsel in the White House?"
"I did not," Wolin said.
Meanwhile, legislators expressed particular outrage with the testimony from former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, who headed the agency during the 18 months that the targeting occurred from 2010 to May 2012.
Similar to responses he gave Tuesday to the Senate Finance Committee, Shulman rejected any personal responsibility for the targeting while expressing himself saddened about what happened.
In particular, he insisted he was unaware of the full details of the targeting when he was the top IRS official. He said he became aware of some aspects of the issue in the spring of 2012, and took what he called the correct action of ensuring the situation would be independently reviewed by George.
"I accept the fact that this happened on my watch and I am very sorry that this happened while I was at the IRS," Shulman said in response to tough questioning by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois. "I feel horrible about this for the agency, for the people there, for the great public servants. I am not sure what else I can say."