Lois Lerner has to go

The big piece of IRS news today is that Lois Lerner, the head of the exempt organizations division — the IRS unit at the center of the scandal involving the targeting of conservative groups — has pleaded the Fifth at today’s hearing:

Lois G. Lerner told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in an opening statement that members of the panel have already accused her of providing false information to Congress.

“I have not done anything wrong,” she said. “I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS regulations. And I have not provided false information to this or any other committee.” But on the advice of counsel, she said, she would not answer questions or testify before the committee.

In a letter to committee chairman Darrell Issa, Lerner’s lawyer claimed she “has no choice” but to plead the Fifth, given that the Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation. But I agree with Josh Marshall: while this may be the right path for Lerner herself, given the circumstances, it also means she must be removed from her position, even if this is bureaucratically difficult.

The Treasury Department inspector general’s report found that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” in targeting Tea Party groups, but found no evidence of partisan motivation in the application of those criteria. Top IRS officials, such as acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller, who has resigned, have reiterated that there was no partisanship at play.  Meanwhile, a New York Times investigation suggested that what happened was partly the result of incompetence and confusion in the face of a tide of applications for tax exemptions.

But there are still key gaps in the story that must be filled concerning how, exactly, these groups were targeted. There is absolutely no evidence that what happened was tied to the Obama administration or 2012 reelection campaign, or any outside Democratic political group. Nor is there any evidence that those who did target the Tea Party groups were doing so out of a desire to influence the election. But as Ezra Klein notes:

But then there’s the offense that everyone agrees did occur: A number of IRS employees developed criteria that was politically biased both in appearance and in effect…Their actions called the fairness of the agency into question and kicked off a national scandal. Even if their intent was pure, they showed bad judgment, more than a bit of incompetence, and perhaps even a touch of insubordination. That is reason enough to fire people, even if the process is difficult.

The constant media obsession with when, exactly, the White House knew of the pending IG report is deeply silly. And as Steve Benen and Jeffrey Toobin both point out, the big picture here is that White House officials did the right thing in not informing the president about the IG’s investigation, because the last thing you want to do is expose the president to accusations of interference. That’s important, and it’s irritating as heck that normally savvy reporters keep pretending not to know this to be the case. Press coverage continues to scurry down process rabbit holes in an effort to bolster a larger “White House on defensive” narrative, rather than level with readers about how significant the new “revelations” about who knew what and when about the IG report actually are.

But this is still very much a legitimate scandal. We still don’t have a full accounting of what happened. We must have one, and we must have accountability. If Lerner won’t — or can’t — answer core questions about how exactly these groups were unfairly targeted, then her remaining in her position is inconsistent with that.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | May 22, 2013