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.
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. Some say she was a generous boss who inspired loyalty, baking brownies and handing out lottery tickets to managers to raise morale. She’s putting her babysitter’s son through college and in 2005 flew to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to rescue animals.
And she’s a savvy lawyer: She studiously avoided answering fundamental questions about her role in the IRS scandal that could land her in deeper trouble with Congress. During her POLITICO interview, flanked by her husband, a partner at a national law firm, and two of her personal attorneys, she opened up about her life as a pariah, joked about horrible news photos and advice that she disguise herself with a blond wig, and cried when expressing gratitude for her legal team’s friendship.
Very few details of Lerner’s personal history, professional background or life since her fall have been detailed in the news media. One thing is clear: She doesn’t seem poised to back down or give her Republican critics in Congress any satisfaction.
“Regardless of whatever else happens, I know I did the best I could under the circumstances and am not sorry for anything I did,” the 63-year-old said.
An apology and a firestorm
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.