Not to fear, America -- she's been placed on "administrative leave," a terribly severe form of discipline that's effectively tantamount to paid vacation. At this week's House Oversight Committee hearing, Lerner (sort of) invoked her fifth amendment rights and refused to answer any questions. She claimed she's done "nothing wrong," which explains why she's reportedly refusing to resign. Question, though: Might Lerner be a relatively innocent patsy in all of this (a la the Benghazi scapegoat)? Er, probably not, via National Review:
A series of letters suggests that senior IRS official Lois Lerner was directly involved in the agency’s targeting of conservative groups as recently as April 2012, more than nine months after she first learned of the activity. Lerner, the director of the IRS exempt organizations office in Washington, D.C., signed cover letters to 15 conservative organizations currently represented by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) between in March and April of 2012. The letters, such as this one sent to the Ohio Liberty Council on March 16, 2012, informed the groups applying for tax-exempt status that the IRS was “unable to make a final determination on your exempt status without additional information,” and included a list of detailed questions of the kind that a Treasury inspector general’s audit found to be inappropriate. Some of the groups to which Lerner sent letters are still awaiting approval. Lerner has denied involvement in the targeting, which she has blamed on a few “front-line people” in the agency’s Cincinnati field office.
More from the ACLJ, which is representing a number of clients who say they were victimized by the IRS targeting scheme:
The timing of her letters coincide with the appearance of former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman before Congress in March 2012 who testified that no such targeting scheme existed. It appears Lerner did nothing to stop the abusive conduct. And our evidence suggests she was actively participating in the improper targeting in March 2012. In fact, she appears to have been quite active with her inquisition. In addition to the letter sent to the Ohio Liberty Council, our records indicate that Lerner sent 14 other letters to 14 of our clients in the March-April 2012 time frame. It's unclear why her name appears on letters to some organizations, and not others. But one thing is clear: this correspondence shows her direct involvement in the scheme. Further, sending a letter from the top person in the IRS Exempt Organizations division to a small Tea Party group also underscores the intimidation used in this targeting ploy.
Time to add another bullet point to the growing list of Lerner's untruths, it would seem. Why isn't this woman out on her ear by now? Simple: She won't step down on her own volition, and federal employees -- especially white collar ones like Lerner -- are exceedingly, almost comically, difficult to fire. Plus, it's no sure bet that Lerner will take responsibility for these letters sent under her name. Eric Holder basically got away with the "there are just so many memos" excuse on Fast & Furious, and Hillary Clinton has attempted a similar maneuver on Benghazi security requests (about which a high-ranking whistle-blower says she was "absolutely" in the loop). And while we're on the subjects of responsibility and disclosure, I still want to know how and why Congress wasn't informed until this week about the IRS' internal probe that confirmed the wrongful targeting practices a full year ago. In any case, Lerner's return trip to Capitol Hill promises to be must-see TV.
While we await that spectacle, I interviewed one of Lerner's former colleagues from the Federal Elections Commission to gain more insight into how she's operated over her lengthy career in government work. (Lerner said this week that she's "very proud" her record). Craig Engle is a prominent Republican-aligned election law attorney in Washington, DC who worked with Lerner in two different capacities at the FEC in the mid-1980's and early 90's. "I'm probably the person in this town who's known Lois the longest, dating back to 1985," he says, tracing their history back to when he briefly worked for her as a young lawyer. After Engle was promoted to chief legal counsel for FEC Commissioner Lee Ann Elliot, his new perch afforded him the opportunity to see and read all of Lerner's memos and recommendations. "What did I see? I saw everything," he says. "I saw everything the commissioners were asked to vote on. How did I feel? I would say that Lois is pro-government. The bigger, the better. The more demanding the regulations, the better. The larger the investigation, the better it is. Anything that would be considered an activist government, that's the Lois Lerner I worked with."
Engle says Lerner saw violations around every corner, even when her legal reasoning was slight. "Under [Lerner], the general counsel's office functioned as a prosecutor. Nine times out of ten, her recommendations were against the respondent. I think she was philosophically opposed to money in politics and was very much a critic of people spending money in political affairs. She could always find a violation -- at least in her opinion, or in her head. In my opinion, her interpretation of the law was sometimes just incorrect." Engle believes Lerner relished her role as a regulator that allowed "government to bestow things on people rather than acknowledging them as equals, based neutrally on the law," he explains. In response to the Weekly Standard's reporting on Lerner's overzealous (and eventually fruitless) FEC investigation into the Christian Coalition, Engle says that episode tracked closely with her general modus operendi. "That was a very long investigation. It was very deep, unnecessary, and frankly, it collapsed under its own weight." His reaction to the recent revelations that conservative Christian groups once again found themselves in the government's crosshairs after Lerner obtained a prominent position at the IRS? "Quite a coincidence, isnt it?"
In spite of his philosophical differences with Lerner and his less-than-glowing reviews of her legal positions, Engle emphasizes that he believes Lerner to be an honest woman who's in over her head. "I think Lois Lerner is an honest person who has made a big mistake, and she may have said some false things in an arena that she didn't think would hold her accountable. She hasn't had a lot of experience in dealing directly with Congress and I'm not sure she understood the ramifications of not testifying fully before them. That lack of familiarity has made her problem a little worse. She doesn't see it," he says, concluding on a sympathetic note. "I feel badly for her. It's painful to be a witness, and it's painful to watch someone you've known for 30 years to go through this."
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography