By JAMES H. "SMOKEY" SHOTT
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearings on Internal Revenue Service malfeasance has produced scenes worthy of a Mel Brooks film, or maybe “Hogan’s Heroes” (“I know nussing!”) As of Friday morning, the following had transpired.
Lois Lerner appeared before the committee last Wednesday. She is the IRS director of exempt organizations, which is the office that deliberately targeted organizations with “Tea Party,” “Patriot” and other identifiers in their names indicating they were conservative organizations. These organizations not only had their applications for 501(c) tax-exempt status delayed for up to three years, but in many cases were asked for information that is clearly outside the legitimate areas of interest of the IRS, and which crossed the line into unconstitutionality and perhaps illegality.
Ms. Lerner told the Committee in an opening statement that committee members have already accused her of providing false information to Congress. However, she said, “I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations. And I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.”
Having thus stated the case for her innocence, she then invoked Fifth Amendment protections against incriminating herself, and refused to answer any questions.
Translation: “I did nothing wrong, but I won’t answer any questions that might show that I did something wrong.”
Committee chairman U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked her to reconsider, and when she refused he then dismissed her and her attorney from the hearing room. However, U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., objected, pointing out that since Ms. Lerner actually testified by making an opening statement, she should have to stay and answer the lawmakers’ questions.
“You don’t get to tell your side of the story and then not be subjected to cross-examination,” Gowdy said. “That’s not the way it works. She waived her right to Fifth Amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement. She ought to stand here and answer our questions,” he said.
Ms. Lerner was ultimately dismissed, but with the caveat that she may be recalled. Better late than never, on Thursday she was suspended from her job. With pay.
This is not the first time the long-time federal employee has been suspected of questionable behavior. When she headed the Enforcement Office at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from 1986 until 2001, there appeared to be politically motivated harassment of conservative groups not unlike what the IRS did. In the late 1990s, the FEC launched an investigation of the Christian Coalition that ultimately cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of lost work.
However, in addition to failing to prove that the coalition did anything wrong is the question of whether the FEC even had authority to assert the charges it leveled against the coalition, which was absolved of any wrongdoing in 1999. Following this suspicious investigation Ms. Lerner was promoted to acting general counsel at the FEC in 2001.
Next to testify was Douglas Shulman, who was appointed by George W. Bush and headed the IRS during the first Obama term. In 2012 he testified before the committee, saying, “As you know, we pride ourselves in being a non-political, non-partisan organization.” He continued, “There is absolutely no political targeting.” We now know that was clearly untrue.
In last week’s appearance Mr. Shulman denied that he had discussed targeting conservative groups with anyone at the White House in any of the more than 100 times he visited the White House complex between 2010 and 2011. “It would not have been appropriate to have a conversation with anyone at the White House about the subject of discriminating against conservative groups,” he said.
When asked if he could recall the nature of any of those visits, Mr. Shulman responded, “The Easter Egg Roll with my kids.” Seriously.
In response to questioning from U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Mr. Shulman replied: “I accept the fact that this happened on my watch and I am very sorry that this happened while I was at the IRS. I feel horrible about this for the agency, for the people there, for the great public servants. I am not sure what else I can say.” He could have overtly taken responsibility for his agency’s malfeasance while he headed it, and apologized to the victims, but he didn’t.
Ms. Duckworth, a military veteran, said that she was “deeply disappointed” by his response, explaining that soldiers serving their country know “you can never delegate responsibility and that you are always responsible for the performance, the training, the actions of the men and women under you.”
Former President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” This is a concept foreign to many in this administration. But it is the law of leadership, whether at the department level, or at the chief executive level: Whatever happens on your watch is your responsibility.
Maybe actually holding people accountable for their mismanagement through firings and prosecution will wake up sleeping bureaucrats like Ms. Lerner and Mr. Shulman, and restore the idea of “service” to public service.
James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.