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Should 'pleading the Fifth' require more strict responses?

In our opinion

 


These days, it seems like “pleading the Fifth” is overused.

Last week, senior Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner exercised her Fifth Amendment right during Congressional hearings regarding the recent IRS scandal about the agency’s targeting political groups for audits. But, being in a public position of power, should that come without consequences?

The Fifth Amendment was created to prevent witnesses from incriminating themselves while on the stand while answering questions. As we all know, lawyers are able to direct questions and guide discussions through clever wording, working toward a desired outcome. It’s important to keep in mind that refusing to speak tends to cast the witness in a negative light and stereotypes them as a guilty party.

People like Lerner, however, who are in charge of a department of government that can cause serious pain on businesses and citizens, can escape public testimony by simply employing the Fifth Amendment and exercising their right to not speak. We think that for people in her position there should be repercussions.

If a public representative exercises their right to not speak, consequences like losing their pension or facing suspension without pay should come to the table. There is some ambiguity in the law that requires enforcement, nudging them in the direction of being accountable to their employers: the people.

Before this goes too far, remember that these government employees likely know the questions that they’ll face. Legal consultants are right behind them, providing feedback and suggestions along the way should any improper question arise. They have input from all directions, and have likely been briefed in the days leading up to their testimony.

Those who provide testimony to a Congressional committee know their stuff and how to properly express it.

Unfortunately, it seems that government employees get a mulligan or a free pass whenever these situations arise. The typical response is to suspend someone without pay, or, in this case, ask for their resignation in two weeks when their temporary position was about to expire regardless of any wrongdoing.

Over 300 organizations, 94 of which held tea party affiliations, were targeted by the IRS during this scandal, asking them questions that had nothing to do with their application. Among the questions asked included what the content of an organization’s prayers were and what some of their private thoughts were during certain periods of time.

Political groups are targeted all the time, but when an organization like the IRS, which has an exponentially-expanding amount of power, starts singling out citizens, that’s cause for worry. While Lerner’s decision to plead the Fifth is well within her rights to speak, or not speak, she’ll likely get the “Washington Shuffle” and move to another department that’s out of the limelight.

It’s time for government repercussions to really have some sting to them, and not just be a slap on the wrist. While it seems the past may repeat itself with these scandals, people become more crafty with the passage of time, and are better able to hide wrongdoings.

We hope these hearings provide some real consequences for those involved, and that it spurs the need for a closer examination of the IRS.

 

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