Lois Lerner Breaks Her Silence

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from Politico,

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.

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.

“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.”

Republicans, who earlier this year held her in contempt of Congress, accuse Lerner of using her position to push for audits and denial of tax-exempt status to Karl Rove’s Crossroads and other GOP groups.

They’ve released partial emails, including one after President Barack Obama’s reelection in which she and Miles bemoan far-right conservative talk radio, calling them “crazies” and “a—holes.”

The couple said the exchange was taken entirely out of context. Miles wrote the email after listening to callers on the “Mark Levin Show” rant about stockpiling food and guns to fight because Obama was going to run the country into the ground. Lerner, then in London, responded from her work email about hearing chatter about the U.S. being a broken system for its fiscal brinkmanship over the debt ceiling.

Lerner said she is “not a political person,” has voted for candidates of both parties and that the only campaign contribution she ever made was $25 to a fellow law school student running for judge.

She’s a registered Democrat, but her lawyer, Bill Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder, said people should “consider whether being a registered member of one political party should disqualify people for government service, and if so, who would we get to run the government?”

Friends and colleagues say Lerner didn’t talk much about politics and note that while Democrats have defended the IRS and the White House, they’ve steered clear of backing Lerner — suggesting she and her husband don’t have many heavyweight Democratic connections.

Not everyone is convinced. Reagan-appointed former Federal Election Commission Commissioner Lee Ann Elliott and Craig Engle, a former executive assistant to a GOP commissioner, who worked alongside Lerner in her role prosecuting campaign finance violations at the FEC, think she was biased against big political spenders. They say she was tough on certain groups because she didn’t like them influencing elections.

“Lois’ ideology is against money in politics, is ‘anti-contribution’; that’s her bias,” said Engle, an Arent Fox partner. “Her ideology inhibited fair administration of the law.”

But Republicans continue to point to emails in which Lerner inquired about Crossroads specifically, asking her colleagues why the group hadn’t been audited and suggesting the group’s application should be denied. And just weeks before the tea party news broke, after she had seen a draft of the damning inspector general report, she asked colleagues if internal IRS instant messages are tracked and could be requested by Congress.

They’re also suspicious that two years’ worth of her emails disappeared in a 2011 computer crash, a huge kerfuffle the IRS only revealed to Congress in June — a year after the saga began.

Lerner scoffed at the notion that she would crash her own computer to hide emails: “How would I know two years ahead of time that it would be important for me to destroy emails, and if I did know that, why wouldn’t I have destroyed the other ones they keep releasing?”

She created a new approach to classifying potential problem areas, pulling together a team of 40 specialized agents to research emerging issues or suspect groups by scanning websites and court cases and reviewing tax forms to see whether the subjects merited a full audit.

While some saw it as a smart use of limited resources, others, including Owens, thought her projects were a “major contributing factor” to the massive backlog in applications that accumulated under Lerner’s rule. Nonprofits went from getting approval in a matter of weeks or months to multiple years.

The surveillance group also found itself in hot water with House Republicans who said conservatives composed 80 percent of those flagged for watch.

Emails released by Congress suggest Lerner knew about the tea party groups being flagged in 2010 and put a stop to the inappropriate “be on the lookout” criteria right when she learned about it in summer 2011. But she didn’t follow up to ensure agents stopped using politically charged words. They actually went right back to the practice.

She also seemed well aware that these groups had been waiting for years to get an answer from the IRS. As early as mid-2011, she asked IRS lawyers how to get the applications wrapped up.

Yet it’s also clear that she wasn’t the only one who made missteps — she’s just the only name leading headlines.

But was the law applied equally to all political persuasions?

Emails show Lerner was looking at political activities of affiliates of liberal group Emerge, which won tax exemptions that were later revoked by her division after Lerner asked “how in the world” they got approved. But the number of conservative groups that were put on hold for years and asked inappropriate questions still far outnumber liberal ones.

Lerner and Miles, a partner with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, said they’ve spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on legal bills as she has been investigated by Congress and the FBI and sued by multiple conservative groups.

The couple, who live in a $2.5 million house in Bethesda, Maryland, where BMWs sit in neighboring driveways surrounded by lush yards and security cameras, are clearly well off. But now they’re more conscious of money, postponing Miles’ retirement, for example.

Lerner wants to work to help pay for her defense bills, though a source working on the congressional investigation said she’s receiving a $100,000 annual pension. But while even Miller, fired by Obama in the wake of the scandal, has landed on his feet at a Washington-based consulting group, Lerner is still untouchable.

Her closest friends can’t help her land a job, and she’s been snubbed by at least one international organization that works on elections in Third World countries and a voluntary position in a county outside Washington.

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