Almost exactly a year after her abrupt retirement, and 16 months after the scandal that caused it, former Internal Revenue Service employee Lois Lerner continues to maintain she did nothing wrong.
In an interview with Politico, her first since the scandal broke, Lerner said, “Regardless of whatever else happens, I know I did the best I could under the circumstances and am not sorry for anything I did.” Yet she hasn’t been able to secure a new job, either in Washington or out. She also declined to name the nonprofit where she occasionally volunteers, observing that “having [her] name attached does nothing but cause issues for people.”
Lerner’s toxicity cannot come as a surprise to her. It certainly won’t to anyone else. Lerner cannot get work because nobody with any sense would want to work with her.
The IRS scandal of which Lerner became the center had to do with politically motivated attempts to slow or stop the nonprofit status applications of conservative groups, before and during the 2012 campaign season. Lerner headed the IRS branch that decides the merits of organizations’ tax-exempt status applications.
The agency repeatedly denied that the long delays and intrusive examination of conservative-linked groups had anything to do with politics. On the eve of an inspector general report that reached the contrary conclusion, Lerner sought to get ahead of the story and, in doing so, confirmed her intrinsic sneakiness. Rather than address the matter forthrightly, as an honorable person would have done, Lerner used a professional conference to issue a pseudo-apology via a planted question, which was posed by a so-called friend whom Lerner encouraged to lie about the fact the question was planted. Lerner later contended, as she continues to contend, that despite the fact she was apologizing for wrongdoing, she herself did nothing wrong. It was all her underlings’ fault. Or Republicans who just don’t understand her. Or gremlins.
Lerner’s Politico interview did nothing to shed light on what really happened inside the IRS, let alone clear Lerner’s name. Except for a series of isolated snippets, Politico did not release anything like a transcript. The article itself largely rehashed the events of the scandal from a year ago. And while time is said to heal all wounds, Lerner’s insistence that she was simply doing her job will ensure that those who rightly disapprove of her behavior have little incentive to move past it any time soon. It also ensures that even her supporters will remain reluctant to extend a hand to her, less they become tainted by association.
As I wrote when Lerner retired, in some ways, she served mainly as a convenient scapegoat for the IRS. Her deceptive behavior and stubbornness in the face of questioning certainly tailored her for the part. Perhaps more importantly, it was more expedient for her colleagues and Democrats to spin the narrative of the scandal toward her and away from systemic policies attempting to undermine political organizations that had every right to their nonprofit status but that held positions the administration preferred to hinder - or at least to allow the IRS to hinder while looking away and maintaining plausible deniability.
Neither Lerner nor anyone else deserves the hate speech or death threats the interview describes. But such reactions to her are surely outliers. Reluctance to hire or work with Lerner, on the other hand, is a reasonable reaction with a solid basis in her own public conduct. Though it beggars belief that Lerner alone is to blame for the mistreatment of the targeted groups, she was certainly the one who used a deceptive ruse to issue a half-hearted apology. And she was someone who spoke just long enough to wash her hands of blame before retreating into a wall of silence under Congressional questioning.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said in a statement following the publication of Politico’s interview, “[Lerner’s] decision to make unsubstantiated claims to a media outlet while claiming Fifth Amendment protections from answering Congress’ questions is telling.” The choice may have been telling, but Issa should not have been surprised.
Sneaks sneak. Liars lie. Lois Lerner is at least one of the two. But you can certainly count on one thing she is said to have said to Politico: She is regarded as toxic. Anyone who comes near her should use suitable protection.