Lois Lerner isn’t a Superwoman, but she’s showing at least as much resilience as Lois Lane.
A new report released on March 11 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, one of several government entities investigating the IRS targeting scandal, levies some more charges against Lerner. Yet the embattled former head of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division has stood her ground throughout the entire ordeal.
The committee chaired by Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) has targeted Lerner as one of the main culprits in the debacle involving extra scrutiny of Tea Party and other conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status in 2010. Improprieties surfacing last year have continued to haunt the nation’s tax-collection agency. When Lerner was called to testify in hearings before congressional panels, she twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
“I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations," claimed Lerner, as quoted in the report. She asserted she was remaining silent based on legal advice of counsel. "I know that some people will assume that I have done something wrong," she reiterated. "I have not."
The fallout from the scandal forced Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller to resign from his post last May, and several other high-ranking IRS officials quickly followed suit. After being suspended, Lerner officially retired on September 23, 2013.
The new 141-page report reveals that Lerner dispatched e-mails suggesting that Congress should have shouldered more of the blame for the debacle. She also said in an e-mail that nonprofit political groups were “itching for a constitutional challenge” regarding the tax-exempt application process. And, perhaps most significantly, the communications show that Lerner was trying to figure out her eligibility for retirement benefits three months before the IRS’s actions ever came to light. (These issues all appear in the report; further analysis is available from Bloomberg and CBS News.)
As Issa has threatened to do in the past, the Oversight committee could hold Lerner in contempt for refusing to answer questions, as well as providing false and misleading information in prior questioning.
“She led efforts to scrutinize conservative groups while working to maintain a veneer of objective enforcement. Her unwillingness to testify deprives Congress the opportunity to have her explain her conduct, hear her response to personal criticisms levied by her IRS coworkers, and provide vital context regarding the actions of other IRS officials,” said the report.
Among other revelations, the report again cited Lerner’s improper use of private e-mails discussing IRS business in violation of government policy. One such e-mail indicates that she was relying on the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent agency regulating political campaigns, to “save the day” after Democratic members of the Senate complained to the FEC that politically oriented organizations were violating election law.
The partisan politics can’t be ignored in a year with national elections taking place. Congressional Republicans have maintained that Lerner’s actions were politically motivated and designed to deter conservative groups. In response, Democrats have argued that some liberal groups were subjected to the same level of scrutiny and there’s no real evidence of a political conspiracy. The Obama administration has been careful to toe the line, saying only that IRS attempts to enforce the law have been clumsy.
It’s likely that more dirt will be dug up as the congressional investigations and a criminal probe by the Justice Department continue. Stay tuned.