Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lois Lerner

What’s To Be Done About Lois Lerner?

The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

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The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.

But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.

We don’t know if, as many conservatives seem to take as an article of faith, Lerner and other IRS officials were acting on orders from higher up in the food chain. Given Lerner’s own past tangles with conservatives, there is good reason to believe she was an eager participant and perhaps was responding to the open hints about targeting conservatives and Tea Partiers issued by an administration determined to demonize their opponents. But given that there is little chance that Holder will act decisively to find out the truth about the IRS, the only way Lerner can be persuaded to talk is if Issa and his colleagues find a way to get her back in the witness chair prepared to talk.

As he seems to have done successfully with the fallout from the Benghazi terror attack and the lies told by administration figures about what happened, the president is seeking to run out the clock on the IRS. A year after the initial news that provoked outrage and even an apology of sorts from Obama, the mainstream press has moved on and Democrats are dismissing the issue as a partisan talking point rather than a blatant violation of trust that ought to concern both parties. To some extent this is the fault of Issa and House Republicans who have preferred to engage in verbal fisticuffs with Democrats rather than engaging them in an investigation that the president and his party would like to terminate. But no matter who’s fault this is, unless Republicans act soon to use their leverage with Lerner to get her to tell the truth, it will soon be too late to get to the bottom of a an act of criminal misbehavior that cries out for justice.

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Like the Mississippi, the IRS Scandal Just Keeps Rolling Along

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, like some of her colleagues (especially Peggy Noonan) and her paper’s incomparable editorial page, continue to cover the IRS scandal and add perspective to it.

Writing in her column today, Ms. Strassel points out that congressional investigators this week released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission inappropriately targeted conservative groups–and they relied on the help of the IRS’s Lois Lerner.

For the IRS to share information with the FEC would of course be illegal–and this is yet more evidence that another one of Barack Obama’s “phony scandals” just got worse. Like the Mississippi, the IRS scandal just keeps rolling along.

A few additional thoughts on it:

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The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, like some of her colleagues (especially Peggy Noonan) and her paper’s incomparable editorial page, continue to cover the IRS scandal and add perspective to it.

Writing in her column today, Ms. Strassel points out that congressional investigators this week released emails suggesting that staff at the Federal Election Commission inappropriately targeted conservative groups–and they relied on the help of the IRS’s Lois Lerner.

For the IRS to share information with the FEC would of course be illegal–and this is yet more evidence that another one of Barack Obama’s “phony scandals” just got worse. Like the Mississippi, the IRS scandal just keeps rolling along.

A few additional thoughts on it:

1. The latest finding means that a scandal that originally involved simply (!) the IRS is now government-wide. And this is not just your garden-variety scandal; it involves a staggering abuse of power by one of the most powerful agencies in the entire American government.

2. The latest finding makes it clear that Lerner, who worked at the FEC for nearly a decade and demonstrated animus toward conservatives, is a key figure in untangling this story. Republicans need to put legal pressure on her and perhaps, at the right moment, offer her some level of immunity to find out what more she knows. Ms. Lerner is obviously a focal point in this whole investigation. If she begins to talk, the stone wall that has been built around this scandal may begin to crumble.

3. To their credit, Republicans are investigating this matter in a methodical and comprehensive manner. They’re not frenetic. They’ve been careful, for the most part, to keep their rhetoric restrained and tied to what we know. It’ll take time for this to story to fully unfold. Fine and well. There’s no urgency. Republicans should take their time to turn over every possible stone.

4. My guess is that when the president announced last week that Republicans were obsessed with “phony scandals,” he was revealing just how worried he is about this scandal and how explosive it might be. He has no interest in getting to the bottom of it, perhaps because he’s fearful of how widespread this whole thing is.

5. It’s worth recalling that once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, liberals and the elite media worried a lot about the abuse of power by government, especially using an agency as powerful as the IRS. Indeed, one of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon included his alleged misuse of the IRS. But this story, like so many other scandals/negative stories involving the Obama administration, seems wholly uninteresting to them (with a few honorable exceptions, like Fox News and the Journal). But the nature of this scandal may eventually make it impossible even for most of the left-leaning media to ignore.

6. The events surrounding the IRS/FEC will further accelerate what has been a collapse in confidence in the federal government. It has to, since this story involves such a large, obvious, and feared governmental agency. One of the (unintended) liberal legacies of Barack Obama may well be much greater distrust of the federal government. This is an irony that shouldn’t be lost on Mr. Obama–but probably will be.  

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Re: Doesn’t Know Math But Can Count to Five

I need to add to what I wrote last night about Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner when I noted the irony of her decision to plead her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when she testified before Congress today. Lerner made good on her promise to refuse to testify today, though she prefaced that with an assertion that she “did nothing wrong” and had broken no law. It’s an interesting legal question as to whether that claim constituted a waiving of her rights to avoid incriminating herself but, like House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa suggested, we’ll leave that for the lawyers to sort out.

Issa let Lerner leave the hearing without being made to repeat her refusal to testify in a sign that he wants to avoid having the committee being criticized for partisanship or grandstanding. But it’s certain that we haven’t heard the last of Lerner, nor is it likely that she will escape further scrutiny. But I should have noted in my previous post some background about her career that was provided by our colleagues at the Weekly Standard on Monday afternoon. Mark Hemingway’s piece gives the background about Lerner’s role in the political vendetta against the Christian Coalition that was pursued by the Federal Elections Commission during her time working at that agency. This is further evidence not only of the liberal bias of many of the civil servants at the IRS and other government agencies but of a possible political motivation for the targeting of Tea Party groups.

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I need to add to what I wrote last night about Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner when I noted the irony of her decision to plead her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when she testified before Congress today. Lerner made good on her promise to refuse to testify today, though she prefaced that with an assertion that she “did nothing wrong” and had broken no law. It’s an interesting legal question as to whether that claim constituted a waiving of her rights to avoid incriminating herself but, like House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa suggested, we’ll leave that for the lawyers to sort out.

Issa let Lerner leave the hearing without being made to repeat her refusal to testify in a sign that he wants to avoid having the committee being criticized for partisanship or grandstanding. But it’s certain that we haven’t heard the last of Lerner, nor is it likely that she will escape further scrutiny. But I should have noted in my previous post some background about her career that was provided by our colleagues at the Weekly Standard on Monday afternoon. Mark Hemingway’s piece gives the background about Lerner’s role in the political vendetta against the Christian Coalition that was pursued by the Federal Elections Commission during her time working at that agency. This is further evidence not only of the liberal bias of many of the civil servants at the IRS and other government agencies but of a possible political motivation for the targeting of Tea Party groups.

As Hemingway writes:

Lerner was appointed head of the FEC’s enforcement division in 1986 and stayed in that position until 2001. In the late 1990s, the FEC launched an onerous investigation of the Christian Coalition, ultimately costing the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours in lost work. The investigation was notable because the FEC alleged that the Christian Coalition was coordinating issue advocacy expenditures with a number of candidates for office. Aside from lacking proof this was happening, it was an open question whether the FEC had the authority to bring these charges. 

In one respect, that case had frightening parallels to the Tea Party targeting:

One of the most shocking things about the current IRS scandal is the revelation that the agency asked one religious pro-life group to detail the content of their prayers and asked clearly inappropriate questions about private religious activity. But under Lerner’s watch, inappropriate religious inquiries were a hallmark of the FEC’s interrogation of the Christian Coalition.

No one reading about that case can be surprised that some of the same shenanigans Lerner and her mates pulled at the FEC were repeated at the IRS. It also makes it difficult for anyone to claim that political prejudices were not part of the motivation for what happened at the IRS. Let’s hope Congress or a special prosecutor eventually gets to the bottom of it.

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Doesn’t Know Math But Can Count to Five

Lois Lerner seemed to have gotten her proverbial 15 minutes of fame after being the first one to let slip the news that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups when determining the nonprofit status of organizations during a conference call with reporters May 10. Before the nation began to even fully digest the enormity of this scandal, they had a good laugh at the IRS official’s expense because in answer to a question about the percentage of groups that had been unfairly treated she responded, “I’m not good at math.” That earned her a moment of derision in what has now become a classic Jon Stewart rant on Comedy Central, as he noted that both her “apology” and her inability to do simple arithmetic undermined the credibility of the party of big government as well as that of the tax agency.

But while Lerner may not know math, she can count to five. We learned this afternoon that when she answers her subpoena to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions posed by Congress. The agency that once was best known for being used to nail criminals like Al Capone, who could not be successfully prosecuted for their violent crimes but were vulnerable because they didn’t pay enough taxes, is now going to have a top official acting like a mafia button man on the hot seat.

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Lois Lerner seemed to have gotten her proverbial 15 minutes of fame after being the first one to let slip the news that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups when determining the nonprofit status of organizations during a conference call with reporters May 10. Before the nation began to even fully digest the enormity of this scandal, they had a good laugh at the IRS official’s expense because in answer to a question about the percentage of groups that had been unfairly treated she responded, “I’m not good at math.” That earned her a moment of derision in what has now become a classic Jon Stewart rant on Comedy Central, as he noted that both her “apology” and her inability to do simple arithmetic undermined the credibility of the party of big government as well as that of the tax agency.

But while Lerner may not know math, she can count to five. We learned this afternoon that when she answers her subpoena to testify about the affair before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions posed by Congress. The agency that once was best known for being used to nail criminals like Al Capone, who could not be successfully prosecuted for their violent crimes but were vulnerable because they didn’t pay enough taxes, is now going to have a top official acting like a mafia button man on the hot seat.

Let’s concede that Lerner is well within her rights in pleading the fifth since she, as much as anyone involved in this disaster, is very much in legal peril for countenancing if not abetting blatantly illegal behavior by government personnel even if we are now told that she eventually attempted to broaden the discrimination to all groups, rather than just Tea Partiers.

It should also be conceded that an outright refusal to testify is, in some ways, a lot more honest than what we’ve heard from her boss Steven Miller both last week and today, as he continued to claim that he didn’t lie to Congress last year when he told them targeting wasn’t going on. The same goes for his predecessor Douglas Shulman, who also assured Congress nothing like that was happening even though an investigation of this behavior was already going on. Their assurances that they hadn’t told anyone in the Treasury Department about any of this are also suspicious. Especially since we are also informed, as the New York Times reports, that Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin “learned of the inspector general’s audit into the targeting effort in the summer of 2012.” Congress will be curious about what, if anything, he did with that information that somehow remained secret during the presidential campaign.

What we hope to eventually learn is what Miller, Shulman and Lerner seem unable or unwilling to tell us: who ordered IRS personnel to do the targeting and why they did it. Up until now all we’ve gotten from the agency and its defenders are stories about overwork, understaffing and incompetence that are worse than no explanation at all.

Unless we get some straight answers to the contrary, there is no reason for anyone to avoid thinking about connecting the dots between the demonization of the Tea Party and other conservatives groups by the administration and the liberal media and the IRS actions. The spectacle of Ms. Lerner channeling the testimony of one of Jimmy Hoffa’s criminal associates while being pressed by the young Bobby Kennedy when she appears before Congress tomorrow will be a sobering moment for an administration and a liberal movement that has doubled down in recent years on its determination to expand the scope and the power of the federal government and its most intrusive agency.

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