Monday, September 23, 2013
A Convenient (and Profitable) Exit
Lois Lerner, the embattled director of the IRS's Tax Exempt Organizations Division, has announced her retirement from the agency. She leaves under a cloud, but will collect a pension estimated at more than $115,000 a year (National Review photo)
Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the efforts to harass Tea Party groups and deny them tax-exempt status, is bowing out. Ms. Lerner, who has been on administrative leave--with pay--since late May has retired from the agency, according to The Wall Street Journal.
A Democratic congressional aide said Ms. Lerner's decision came after an IRS review board had informed her that it was set to propose her removal from the agency. The board had found "neglect of duties" during her tenure as director of the IRS exempt-organizations division, as well as mismanagement consistent with critical findings of an earlier inspector general's report, the aide said. However, the congressional aide noted the board found no evidence of political bias or willful misconduct.
"Removing" Lerner from the IRS would have been the first step in her termination as a federal employee. But Ms. Lerner avoided that possibility by simply submitting her retirement paperwork. And we're guessing the agency set new records in approving her request, since it can now depict the targeting of conservative groups as the actions of a "former" employee.
In exchange for falling on her sword, Lerner will be nicely compensated. As a career federal bureaucrat, she has a fat government pension to fall back on, somewhere in the neighborhood of $115,000 annually. This calculation is based on Lerner's coverage under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), which covers government workers who began their careers before 1987.
Retirement annunities governed by that plan are based on a percentage of the employee's highest three-year salary average. During the latter stages of her IRS career, Lerner averaged $185,000 a year; using the Office of Personnel Management formula, that gives the disgraced federal official an estimated monthly retirement check of $10,110, before taxes and other deductions.
We use the term "estimated" because it's been virtually impossible to find a biography of Ms. Lerner that provides a complete listing of her federal service. This much we know: after earning her bachelor's at Northeastern University, Lerner graduated from the Western New England University School of Law in 1978. Then, she made a beeline for D.C., signing on as a staff attorney at the Carter Justice Department. Eight years later, she moved to the Federal Election Commission, where her partisan enforcement style first became obvious. From Eliana Johnson at National Review:
One of Lerner’s former colleagues tells National Review Online that her political ideology was evident during her tenure at the FEC, where, he says, she routinely subjected groups seeking to expand the influence of money in politics — including, in her view, conservatives and Republicans — to the sort of heightened scrutiny we now know they came under at the IRS.
“I’ve known Lois since 1985,” says Craig Engle, a Washington, D.C., attorney who from 1986 to 1995 served as the executive assistant to one of the FEC’s commissioners and later worked as general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m probably one of the few people in Washington who really knows her whole career as opposed to those who have come across her lately.”
Engle describes Lerner as pro-regulation and as somebody seeking to limit the influence of money in politics. The natural companion to those views, he says, is her belief that “Republicans take the other side” and that conservative groups should be subjected to more rigorous investigations. According to Engle, Lerner harbors a “suspicion” that conservative groups are intentionally flouting the law.
Despite her obvious "suspicion" (read: bias), Ms. Lerner's career flourished at the FEC, where she held the position as Associate General Counsel and head of the Enforcement Office. From there, she joined the IRS in 2001, rising to the top of its Tax Exempt Organizations division, giving her enormous influence over political groups applying for that status. By our count, Lerner spent at least 34 years on the federal payroll, using her position to target conservative groups and candidates. And despite obvious warning signs from her FEC days, few raised objections to her tactics and enforcement "style" until the IRS scandal erupted earlier this year.
So why did Lerner quit? The odds of her actually being fired from the bureaucracy are ridiculously low; a 2011 study by USA Today found that the average federal worker was more likely to die on the job than be dismissed for cause. For personnel at the upper levels of the GS scale and members of the Senior Executive Service, the chances of being dismissed are akin to being struck by a meteorite. During FY2011, the paper reported, the federal government fired only 11,000 personnel--out of a workforce of more than 2 million (excluding postal service workers and military personnel).
We're guessing that Ms. Lerner was told to submit her retirement papers, probably by the new IRS Commissioner and (likely) at the direction of the White House. Both the administration and the agency want to move beyond the targeting scandal, and having the central figure on paid vacation certainly doesn't help that cause. There is also reason to believe that even more damning revelations about Lerner and her minions are about to unfold and there's still the possibility (albeit remote) that the former bureaucrat could face criminal prosecution some day.
By retiring now, Lerner has effectively secured her six-figure pension; as outlined in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, laws that can strip pensions from convicted members of Congress--and other senior government officials--are rarely enforced. In fact, a CNN report (from 2007) estimated that 20-25 former Congressmen, all convicted of various offenses, were still collecting their federal pensions at that time, even while incarcerated.
Against that backdrop, Ms. Lerner has little to worry about, even if lightning strikes (quite literally) and she spends a little time behind bars. It's easy to run a politically-motivated vendetta when you have little to fear in the way of punishment.