If only Lois Lerner were Lois Lane, Superman could soar in and save her, and perhaps her colleagues, from the angry crowd waiting on Capitol Hill.
Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the Internal Revenue Service, is at the center of the IRS scandal about targeting conservative organizations for extra scrutiny. She’s scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The hearing should more fully reveal what her role was in this train wreck. Until then, she’s not talking. She’s a career civil servant with a reputation for doing her work without political favoritism, and her remarks to a legal conference were the first news of the situation. Yet The Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, gave her four Pinocchios for “misstatements and weaselly wording when the revelations about the IRS’s activities first came to light.”
The Post’s David Fahrenthold reported that Lerner would tell colleagues not to do anything they would not want to explain to Congress. But, there have been congressional calls to terminate her.
Now, Lerner will have to explain to Congress what went so wrong during her watch, despite her attempts to correct it.
It’s not going to be pretty.
“A little more than a week ago, Lois Lerner was in front of our oversight subcommittee,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, at a hearing Friday. “She serves as the director of the Exempt Organization Division, and she has been directly involved in this matter. Yet, she failed to disclose what she knew to this committee, choosing instead to do so in an ABA (American Bar Association) conference two days later. This is wholly unacceptable and one of the reasons that we believe, and as I stated several days ago, Ms. Lerner should be relieved of her duties.”
And Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) told WTOP last week that “anybody who was aware of this, and either participated or allowed it to happen, without throwing on the emergency brake or pulling the fire alarm, they’re really not fit to continue to serve. They ought to be losing their jobs.”
But who are “they”?
Although the resignations of two IRS officials have been announced, including that of Acting Commissioner Steve Miller, one bit of information starkly missing from the story is who is responsible for it. J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, whose report ignited this issue, told the Ways and Means hearing he could not determine who told employees to select organizations with certain words in their names.
George said the investigation showed that higher-ups were not involved in the decision to send letters to organizations asking for unnecessary information. “All evidence indicates that staff at the Determinations Unit in Cincinnati sent these letters out with little or no supervisory review,” George told the panel.
Miller said he asked who was responsible for naming tea party groups and other organizations for special attention, but, incredibly, he couldn’t recall what he was told. Here’s an excerpt from the hearing transcript:
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.): Mr. Miller, you’re the commissioner. Who was responsible? You conducted the investigation. Who was responsible?
Miller: I don’t have that name, sir.
Reichert: But why don’t you have the name? . . . Have you asked anybody?
Miller: I asked the senior technical adviser.
Reichert: And what’s the senior technical adviser’s name?
Miller: Nancy Marks.
Reichert: And what did Nancy tell you? Who is responsible?
Miller: That, I don’t remember, to be honest with you.
Lerner will have to do better than that. If not, calls for her firing will only increase.
Even if that is warranted, it’s not as easy as saying, “You’re fired.”
Contrary to some misperceptions, federal employees can be fired — about 11,000 or so get the ax each year.
The process includes a 30-day notice of proposed removal. Employees can appeal, using avenues such as the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and arbitration.
Unlike other federal workers, IRS people must follow a set of rules written into law, dubbed the “10 deadly sins.” Sinning requires termination if there is “a final administrative or judicial determination” of misconduct. Bad intentions or political motivations need not be a factor.
When it comes to firing a fed, “the odds are heavily against an employee,” said John Palguta, a former MSPB and Office of Personnel Management official now with the Partnership for Public Service.
But not because of bias.
“If an agency does its job of documenting the decision to remove, they are usually upheld,” he added. “You’d have to have a darn good reason why you think an agency made a bad decision.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.