Sounds guilty to me. Lois Lerner is now giving interviews to reporters about how she’s suffering for no reason at all – yet she won’t swear under oath?
Lois Lerner ought to be in prison for denying the civil liberties of Americans and persecuting them through the IRS. She also should be testifying as to who told her to do it.
Employers won’t hire her. She’s been berated with epithets like “dirty Jew.” Federal agents have guarded her house because of death threats. And she’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending herself against accusations she orchestrated a coverup in a scandal that has come to represent everything Americans hate about the IRS.
Lois Lerner is toxic — and she knows it. But she refuses to recede into anonymity or beg for forgiveness for her role in the IRS tea party-targeting scandal.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Lerner said in her first press interview since the scandal broke 16 months ago. “I’m proud of my career and the job I did for this country.”
Lerner, who sat down with POLITICO in an exclusive two-hour session, has been painted in one dimension: as a powerful bureaucrat scheming with the Obama administration to cripple right-leaning nonprofits. Interviews with about 20 of her colleagues, friends and critics and a survey of emails and other IRS documents, however, reveal a much more complicated figure than the caricature she’s become in the public eye.
The portrait that emerges shows Lerner is, indeed, fierce, unapologetic and perhaps even tone-deaf when she says things that show her Democratic leanings. She had a quick temper and may have intimidated co-workers who could have helped her out of this mess. It’s easy to see how Republicans have seized on the image of a devilish figure cracking down on conservative nonprofits.
“We followed the trail where it leads, and we saw it lead to Lois Lerner,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said at a hearing Thursday. “She refers with disdain to conservatives; she’s an active liberal; and it’s clear her actions were set out to be detrimental to conservatives.”
Yet Lerner is also described as “apolitical” and fair. Some say she was a generous boss who inspired loyalty, baking brownies and handing out lottery tickets to managers to raise morale. She’s putting her babysitter’s son through college and in 2005 flew to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to rescue animals.
And she’s a savvy lawyer: She studiously avoided answering fundamental questions about her role in the IRS scandal that could land her in deeper trouble with Congress. During her POLITICO interview, flanked by her husband, a partner at a national law firm, and two of her personal attorneys, she opened up about her life as a pariah, joked about horrible news photos and advice that she disguise herself with a blond wig, and cried when expressing gratitude for her legal team’s friendship.
Very few details of Lerner’s personal history, professional background or life since her fall have been detailed in the news media. One thing is clear: She doesn’t seem poised to back down or give her Republican critics in Congress any satisfaction.
“Regardless of whatever else happens, I know I did the best I could under the circumstances and am not sorry for anything I did,” the 63-year-old said.
An apology and a firestorm
On May 22, 2013, Lerner returned to the seeming safety of her IRS office after invoking the Fifth Amendment and being chased down a Capitol Hill hallway by the Washington press corps.
Instead, she was summoned by the human resources department and ordered to resign or clean out her desk by 2 p.m. and be escorted from the building on indefinite administrative leave. She refused to resign.
It was a startling turnabout for the woman whose alumni magazine said she had “rock star status” in the tax world and who was a recipient of a government service award for ethics. She thought she was months away from a quiet retirement after 33 years working for Uncle Sam.
“Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, she got these amazing ratings and bonuses. … And once she retired, she would have gone out with bells and whistles, and the IRS commissioner would have made a speech. … It went from that to: You’re under criminal investigation, and your career is ruined, in a week,” said Lerner’s husband, Michael Miles, who sat to her right during the interview.
The beginning of the end started a few days earlier, when acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller asked her to get ahead of a damning inspector general report due the following week. It detailed IRS agents giving heightened scrutiny to nonprofits using words like “tea party,” “patriot” and “limited government spending,” and asking the groups inappropriate questions about their donors and political affiliations.
Lerner, then head of the division handling organizations claiming tax-exempt status, obliged and dropped what turned out to be a political bombshell at an American Bar Association conference, using a planted question to apologize for the treatment of right-leaning nonprofits from IRS “front-line people” in Cincinnati.
Within days, lawmakers in both parties were calling for her resignation, furious that IRS leaders, including Lerner, had withheld information when asked by lawmakers for months about the matter. Top officials also blamed Cincinnati, when, in fact, Washington was also handling the cases.
Called to testify before the House Oversight Committee, Lerner decided to take the Fifth and read a defiant speech declaring her innocence — one that Republicans argued waived her rights. She says she’d do it again.
“By taking the Fifth, Lois put a sign on her back: Kick me,” said Paul Streckfus, editor of the EO Tax Journal. “To the average person, that sounds like, ‘Oh my God, she must be hiding something!’”
Lerner, for her part, assumes she is at the center of the storm because “I was the person who announced it. I assume the other part of it is because I declined to talk, and once I declined to talk, they could say anything they wanted, and they knew I couldn’t say anything back.”
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