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Lois Lerner and Waiver of Fifth Amendment Privilege

Everybody is talking about whether Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by making an exculpatory opening statement at yesterday’s hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (eg, these posts at Hot Air and the Volokh Conspiracy). As Juliet Eilperin notes, “[l]ike a lot of legal questions, it depends on whom you ask.”

It also depends on how you approach the question. Chairman Issa has indicated that he is consulting with counsel, and counsel (presumably the House Counsel’s office) will give him an answer based on reading the case law and advising on how the courts would likely react to the waiver issue if the committee and the House were to hold Lerner in contempt for refusing to answer questions. As I mentioned yesterday, this issue arose when I was at the House Counsel’s office in 2002 after Bernie Ebbers, the former CEO of WorldCom, made an exculpatory opening statement before taking the Fifth at a House hearing.

At the time, Ebbers’ lawyer (Reid Weingarten) argued that there was no waiver because Ebbers had made an exculpatory statement, but had not testified to any incriminating fact. He relied on cases where witnesses in judicial proceedings had been held not to waive the privilege when they answered questions but had not provided an incriminating response. There is, however, a strong argument that these cases are distinguishable because they involve witnesses who were compelled to answer questions and had no right to refuse to answer unless their responses would in fact incriminate them. They might apply to a congressional witness who answered preliminary questions before taking the Fifth, but they arguably do not apply to a congressional witness who voluntarily makes an opening statement. The latter situation (again, arguably) would be controlled by the principle that “a witness, in a single proceeding, may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999).

For present purposes, let’s assume that the House Counsel advises Issa that it is likely (not certain) that the courts would hold that Lerner had waived her self-incrimination privilege under the facts presented. Let’s further assume that the law has not changed materially since 2002. Finally, let’s assume that there have been at least a few other congressional witnesses since then who have pulled similar stunts, but the House has not previously held any of them in contempt.

Under these circumstances, COGR could move forward with holding Lerner in contempt, but I would argue that it would be unwise to do so from the perspective of the House’s institutional interest. Instead, I would encourage the committee to declare prospectively that witnesses who make voluntary opening statements will be presumptively considered to have waived their privilege against self-incrimination with respect to questions within the subject matter of those statements (i.e., questions that would be within the scope of cross examination of an opening statement).

It is undoubtedly in the House’s institutional interest to discourage witnesses from making a self-serving opening statement and then refusing to answer a committee’s questions about it. On the other hand, it is also in the House’s institutional interest to turn square corners and maximize the chances that its legal position will be upheld in court. If COGR holds Lerner in contempt for the same conduct that Ebbers and other congressional witnesses have been allowed to get away with, its action will be tainted by the perception of unfairness and selective enforcement, and a court will be more likely to find that no waiver occurred. By contrast, if the committee puts witnesses clearly on notice that voluntary opening statements will be deemed to waive the privilege, any future enforcement action is far more likely to be successful.

Consistent with this position, Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings could write to Lerner’s attorney and give him an opportunity to formally withdraw her opening statement. If he refuses to do so, it would be appropriate for the committee to move forward with contempt.

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