Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lois Lerner’s Sob Story

If she’s so distraught about her damaged reputation, she might consider confessing. 

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 that she orchestrated a cover-up in a scandal that has come to represent everything Americans hate about the IRS.
Behold, the martyrdom of Lois Lerner.

At least, that is the takeaway from Monday’s Politico interview with the former head of the IRS’s tax-exemption unit, the guileless victim of right-wing conspiracy theorists, Republican operators, and Darrell Issa.

“Lerner . . . has been painted in one dimension: as a powerful bureaucrat scheming with the Obama administration to cripple right-leaning nonprofits,” writes interviewer Rachel Bade. In reality, the scandal-hounded Lerner is — didn’t you suspect? — “a much more complicated figure than the caricature she’s become in the public eye.”
Of course, Richard Nixon was “complicated,” too, but he did not get 3,700 rehabilitative words in Politico.

Sixteen months after planting a questioner in the audience of an American Bar Association meeting to soften the revelation that the IRS had targeted conservative-leaning organizations for additional, often inappropriate, scrutiny, Lerner has not been washed clean of her iniquities — because, according to Politico, it’s an open question whether she erred in the first place. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she maintains. “I’m proud of my career and the job I did for this country.”

That job apparently consisted of facilitating — if not expressly directing — the political repression of nearly 500 organizations, most of them tea-party affiliated, and then lying about her involvement; of ignoring millions of dollars in political spending by unions; of calling Republicans “crazies”; and likely of much more — which, of course, remains undiscovered, because Lerner pled the Fifth.

In her interview, Lerner says she “declined to talk” about her part in the targeting scandal, as if Jack Bauer were plugging her nails with bamboo shoots. At The Federalist, David Harsanyi corrects that misrepresentation: “You didn’t decline to talk, you are benefitting from a clause in the Constitution that allows a person to shield themselves from self-incrimination. This fact certainly doesn’t make you guilty, but it almost surely means you’re hiding something pretty important.”

That latter point is worth reiterating: Lerner, like any defendant, is innocent until proven guilty, and she deserves the fair administration of the legal process. Individuals who have personally attacked her or threatened her or her family do a disservice to the cause of good government that they claim to represent. That said, if it acts like a corrupt tax official, and if like a corrupt tax official it refuses to quack . . . 

It’s not surprising that an interview that took place in the presence of three attorneys — Lerner’s dynamic duo of personal lawyers, plus her husband, also a lawyer — focuses on the warm and fuzzy, sometimes literally: for instance, Lerner’s decision to take “unpaid leave” to rescue animals in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (the heroism of which is somewhat diminished by mention of Lerner’s $2.5 million house in Bethesda). But even those inclined to believe that Lerner is meticulously “apolitical” and “fair” (as unnamed sources contend) might balk at Bade’s suggestion that it was, in fact, Lerner’s “cautious” administration that was the cause of the targeting.

“The irony is she and Steve Miller were so extremely cautious, and yet their caution blew up in their face,” says Paul Streckfus, editor of EO [Exempt OrganizationsTax Journal. Her “new approach to classifying potential problem areas,” which involved creating “a team of 40 specialized agents to research emerging issues or suspect groups”; her preference for delegating responsibility (for instance, to agents at the department’s Cincinnati office); and the budget cuts her unit suffered from 2009 to 2013 — all worked together to create a “slow-moving” bureaucratic apparatus, which just happens to have had a marked predilection for auditing groups with “patriot” in their titles. Says Karen Grier, a tax attorney who worked with Lerner, “You could take her out of there and just stand in a different person, and no matter who it is, we would have the same result.”

Bade no doubt intended Grier’s quote as a defense of Lerner, but it suggests the point made by Lerner’s accusers on the right: that this is not about Lois Lerner — or Daniel Werfel, or Steve Miller, or any of the head honchos who made easy, early targets. The violation of the First Amendment rights of hundreds of organizations was not the work of one or two “rogue” operatives in Cincinnati, or in Washington, but the result of systematic malpractice at several levels. And that Lois Lerner has become a symbol of institutional corruption festering in America’s tax bureau is not the collective projection of Rush Limbaugh callers but the predictable result of her decision not to fess up to obvious wrongdoing and not to help those with the power to reform the IRS rein in its propensity for mischief. She will not earn any sympathy — nor does she deserve any — for flaunting her lack of cooperation in the pages of Politico.

If Lerner wants out of the dark night of the soul she is suffering, perhaps she should consider confession.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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