Washington, DC, United States (Reuters) - When embattled Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner was called before a congressional committee Wednesday, she declared that she had done nothing wrong - but said she did not intend to testify. Her defiance only turned up the heat from Republicans who have threatened to take her to court for misleading Congress.
Yet whatever political problems Lerner may have escalated for the Obama administration in the scandal over IRS scrutiny of Tea Party and other conservative groups, history suggests neither she nor any other IRS official is likely to face criminal charges related to congressional testimony.
Such charges are rarely filed, and convictions are even rarer. The most high-profile recent case in point is the prosecution of Major League Baseball pitching great Roger Clemens, who was acquitted by a jury in 2012 on charges he lied to Congress when he denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
"Almost no one is prosecuted for lying to Congress,'' lawyer P.J. Meitl asserted in a 2007 Quinnipiac Law Review article.
Meitl, who wrote the article while in private practice, is now an assistant US attorney in Dallas. He found only six people who had been convicted of perjury or related charges in relation to Congress, going back to the 1940s.
Two of those cases arose from Watergate, one against President Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, and the other against H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff. Both men were found guilty of perjury before a Senate committee.
Unlike in a typical criminal probe, lawyers say that in a politically charged congressional setting - often involving many exchanges among officials, their staff and witnesses - it can be difficult to prove a key element in any perjury prosecution: that the person knowingly and willfully deceived.
For Lerner and some other officials, the legal cloud darkened when Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the Justice Department would investigate possible wrongdoing relating to reports that the IRS subjected conservative groups to more scrutiny than other groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Holder said the department would be looking at charges relating to the denial of civil rights to members of conservative groups, IRS rules for US government employees and the Hatch Act, which bans civil …