Last week, Lois Lerner, the now suspended Director of Exempt Organizations for the IRS, appeared before the House Oversight Committee. She gave a brief opening statement, in which she proclaimed that she had “not done nothing wrong” and that she had “not broken any laws.”

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Her lawyer had already informed the Committee that she would refuse to answer questions so as not to incriminate herself. When the Committee began asking questions, she did as promised and refused to answer.

Now there is a debate among legal experts as to whether, by making her opening statement, she waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Some experts, including Alan Derschowitz (BNA subscription required) have said she waived her right to not to answer questions, while others, such as a former counsel to the House of Representatives (BNA subscription required) have suggested she did not.

Whether she waived or not, the important thing to remember is why one would take the Fifth, and how to do it successfully, so that legal experts aren’t debating it for all to see.

Why take the Fifth?

Why would someone want to refuse to testify? Primarily if they would be forced to make statements that could potentially incriminate them in a criminal activity. Such self-incrimination can arise in response to being asked to explain a document submitting false information to a regulator (a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001), being asked questions about committing a crime, or being asked to explain contradictory statements made to the government (and therefore admitting to committing perjury).

How to do it?

Leaving aside the specifics of the Lerner situation, there are three parts to a successful effort to refuse to answer questions. One is legal, one is political or public-relations oriented, and the third is practical. All three are equally important.

Refusing to Answer Gracefully: Developing a working relationship with the committee may help avoid sitting at the witness table and being forced to refuse to answer questions, both publicly and repeatedly. Possible approaches might include providing documents requested (note that producing documents pay be privileged in certain circumstances and this must be done very carefully), having corporate entities answer written questions (corporations have no right not to incriminate themselves), and providing witnesses to the Committee who have relevant information but who do not face criminal exposure.

Once that working relationship is forged, then the witness’s lawyer can discuss with the Committee that his or her client will have to refuse to answer questions. Although a letter may be required, this often starts with informal conversations or calls. Discussions about how many questions the Committee will answer before dismissing the witness are also helpful.

Legal Considerations:As the Lerner controversy makes clear, the best way to avoid questions of waiver is simply to not make any opening statement at all beyond providing the witness’s name and thanking the Committee for holding the hearing. Even before the hearing, responding to staff questions or sitting for an interview can effectuate a waiver. Thus, written responses should come from the lawyer or a corporate entity—not the witness personally (of course, this may require separate counsel for the company and the witness).

Practical Considerations: At the hearing, invoke the privilege to any and all questions asked. As some witnesses have discovered, selectively invoking the right may subject them to extensive depositions. Finally, as this witness found out, once you invoke your Fifth Amendment rights, leave.

Click here to view document.

(you can watch this exchange from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight committee here, starting at about minute 42)

At the end of the day, the prospect of a witness having to refuse to answer a string of questions before the cameras may simply be too tempting a target for a Committee to pass up. But with careful groundwork and legal maneuvering, the risks of waiver can be minimized and the bad publicity contained.