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Humanizing Lois Lerner

The IRS scandal does not depend on one person being an absolute monster.

In what might prove to be one of the more ill-advised puff pieces ever, Politico sets out to become IRS scandal kingpin Lois Lerner’s public-relations firm, instructing America that she’s a human being, her abuses of power couldn’t have been all that bad because she makes brownies, and can’t be a partisan operative because someone, somewhere, described her as “apolitical.”  If the goal for managing the scandal was to keep it out of the headlines until America forgets about it, this isn’t helping.

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.

Shame on you for thinking that she’s getting a good, stiff dose of the medicine she dished out to Barack Obama’s political opponents.  Shame, shame, shame.  How is this poor woman supposed to support her lavish lifestyle on nothing but the fabulous benefits she was allowed to retire with?  Lerner and her husband, a partner in a prestigious law firm, “live in a $2.5 million house in Bethesda, Maryland, where BMWs sit in neighboring driveways surrounded by lush yards and security cameras,” but now that her notoriety has made her “toxic” to potential employers, they’re thinking about putting Mr. Lerner’s retirement off.  They’ve got legal bills to worry about, because the people Lois Lerner and her crew refused to think of as human beings are suing them.  It reminds me a bit of Hillary Clinton claiming to be “flat broke” after she left the White House because of the legal bills that resulted from her husband engaging in sexual harassment and committing perjury.

Much of this piece is pitched at people who haven’t followed the IRS scandal very closely, and might be inclined to believe these hilarious assertions that Lerner is a lovable non-partisan idealist.  When contrary evidence is briefly referenced in the story, it’s invariably portrayed as a vaguely scurrilous leak from those rascally Republicans who are out to get poor little Lois.  Even that little bit about Lerner outrageously taking the Fifth to escape from testimony is treated like a reasonable move this “savvy lawyer” had to take, in order to escape Republican clutches.

The more of this soft-focus personal stuff you imbibe, the further you get from the hard, cold reality that Lerner’s department unquestionably abused its authority.  She admitted as much during the early days of emergency scandal control (back around the time Barack Obama was pretending to be outraged, and vowing to get whoever was responsible).  She made that admission, in the answer to a planted question at a Q&A session, because she wanted to get out in front of a Treasury Inspector General investigation, which concluded there were serious problems in her department.  Then she worked hard to stymie the investigation, dragging it out for years.  Statements were made during the first stage of spin control that turned out to be untrue (remember the “rogue low-level employees in Cincinnati?”)  When documents were finally crowbarred out of the Most Transparent Administration in History, it was discovered that Lerner was taking her lead from powerful Democrats in Congress, displayed strong personal animosity toward conservative groups… and perhaps most significantly, viewed herself as a crusader against the campaign finance situation created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the singularity into which much of left-wing thought has collapsed.

It is impossible to spin away all those documents from Lerner showing that she thought of Citizens United as a problem she was empowered to “fix.”  That’s an inherently political agenda, and it would be even if it wasn’t conducted in a nakedly partisan manner, as it was.  No one at the Internal Revenue Service has any business whatsoever looking at Supreme Court decisions and thinking: They got it wrong, and I’m going to do something about that.

Also, let us pause to remember an often-overlooked element of the IRS scandal: this was not merely about denying tax-exempt status to conservative groups, at far higher rates than such refusals were issued to liberal groups.  The targeted conservative organizations were not, for the most part, refused.  They were kept in limbo.  Their applications were dragged out for months and years on end, while agents from Lerner’s group peppered them with intimidating demands for information.  Some of these groups were small mom-and-pop operations that gave up; others watched as donors were frightened away.  The selection process for this “enhanced scrutiny” wasn’t the only partisan abuse of power.  What actually happened to them was irregular, and without comparison among liberal groups, which got mostly speedy approvals, and a very small number of speedy refusals.

The idea behind this puff piece is fundamentally wrong-headed.  The IRS scandal is not premised on the idea that one person, Lois Lerner, is an absolute monster devoid of redeeming qualities.  Plenty of people who abuse their authority sincerely believe they’re doing the right thing.  Many of us have little trouble compartmentalizing good and bad behavior, especially when we have extremely low opinions of the people we treat badly, as was the case with Lerner and the targets of her Tax Exempt Organizations crusade.  Some of those groups were pro-lifers who donated their time and money to a cause they sincerely believe is nothing less than the rescue of innocent human life, but that didn’t earn them any brownie points with Lerner and her crew, did it?

Lerner could have given honest testimony about what happened on her watch at Tax Exempt Organizations, and who gave the orders.  She chose not to do that, as part of a general pattern of stonewalling and obfuscation that dragged the investigation out to ridiculous length… a strategy this Administration has employed to thwart every scandal investigation, with a great deal of success.  There’s no reason the entire IRS investigation couldn’t have been wrapped up in a matter of months, but Lerner and others in the Administration refused to let it proceed with such alacrity.

It’s wholly unacceptable for anyone to send her hate mail, much less make death threats (as described in the Politico article) but to the extent she draws less unreasonable opprobrium, it’s because the public is trying to reconcile the dissonance between a massive scandal that began with Lerner conceding its existence… and an outcome that left absolutely no one formally disciplined.  It’s not surprising she’s the face of the controversy.

It’s interesting that she’d pop up now and try for a media rehabilitation tour.  Does that mean she’s judged the scandal effectively dead of old age, so it’s time for her to work on salvaging her reputation… or is she worried about something yet to come?  As the Wall Street Journal reminds us, in an article entitled “Stonewall Koskinen,” the cover-ups and slow-walking of request information continue under IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who was supposed to be a “reformer.”  Lerner’s name comes up near the end of the article:

The more cynical explanation is that the president chose Mr. Koskinen as someone who could be trusted to stonewall congressional questions. That’s a fair conclusion given his lack of cooperation and the increasingly partisan language the IRS commissioner is hurling at Republicans. “There are some people who don’t want a straight story,” said Mr. Koskinen in July. “I’m not sure if people really want a special prosecutor,” he stated, because then “you wouldn’t be holding all these fun hearings every week or two.”

It’s also a fair conclusion given the “independent” commissioner’s embrace of partisan Obama policies, including the highly controversial regulation to formalize the targeting of 501(c)(4) nonprofit advocacy groups. Mr. Koskinen inherited that outrageous proposal, and the obvious course for anybody looking to restore IRS integrity would have been to immediately table it. Instead, Mr. Koskinen embraced it, defended it with administration talking points, and only decided to delay it after an avalanche of criticism.

It’s a fair conclusion, too, as evidence mounts that the entire administration is working toward a cover-up. The Justice Department initially tried to quell the targeting uproar by announcing an investigation. Then we heard that leading that probe was the Civil Rights Division’s Barbara Bosserman, an Obama donor. So Justice reassured Congress that its Public Integrity unit was also involved.

We now know the head of Public Integrity, Jack Smith, worked with Ms. Lerner in 2010 to potentially build criminal cases against 501(c)(4) nonprofits. His subordinate, Richard Pilger, head of the election crimes branch, worked with her to obtain a massive database on those groups. That file landed with the FBI, implicating it in the Lerner circle. Justice isn’t investigating; it’s stonewalling.

That’s a rather elaborate web of connections for an “apolitical” Tax Exempt Organizations chief who was just trying to keep her head down and do her job, no?

Update: Can we expect a series of puff pieces on the people who got abused by the IRS, such as Becky Gerritson?  I’ll bet she loves animals and can bake a mean brownie, just like Lois Lerner.

Written By

John Hayward began his blogging career as a guest writer at Hot Air under the pen name "Doctor Zero," producing a collection of essays entitled Doctor Zero: Year One. He is a great admirer of free-market thinkers such as Arthur Laffer, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. He writes both political and cultural commentary, including book and movie reviews. An avid fan of horror and fantasy fiction, he has produced an e-book collection of short horror stories entitled Persistent Dread. John is a former staff writer for Human Events. He is a regular guest on the Rusty Humphries radio show, and has appeared on numerous other local and national radio programs, including G. Gordon Liddy, BattleLine, and Dennis Miller.

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