Lois Lerner, director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division and a central figure in the recent IRS scandal, has been accused of a number of untruths since she admitted the agency has targeted hundreds of conservative and Tea Party groups for over two years.
Though some of her defenders claim she is “apolitical,” prior to joining the IRS, Lerner’s tenure as head of the Enforcement Office at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was represented by what appears to be politically motivated harassment of conservative groups, particularly those with religious ties.
According to Mark Hemingway at the Weekly Standard, Lerner was head of the FEC’s enforcement division between 1986 and 2001. In the late 1990’s, the FEC initiated a burdensome investigation of the Christian Coalition, an endeavor that ended up costing the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars and many hours of time.
Hemingway indicates that the investigation was particularly notable because the FEC claimed that “the Christian Coalition was coordinating issue advocacy expenditures with a number of candidates for office.” Though there was no proof that this was occurring, the question remained of whether the FEC actually had the authority to bring these charges at all.
James Bopp, Jr., lead counsel for the Christian Coalition at that time, told the Weekly Standard, “We felt we were being singled out, because when you handle a case with 81 depositions you have a pretty good argument you’re getting special treatment… From Ralph Reed’s former part-time secretary to George H.W. Bush. It was mind-blowing.”
Bopp described the extent of the inquiry and the requests for information in his testimony before the congressional Committee on House Administration in 2003:
The FEC conducted a large amount of paper discovery during the administrative investigation and then served four massive discovery requests during the litigation stage that included 127 document requests, 32 interrogatories, and 1,813 requests for admission. Three of the interrogatories required the Coalition to explain each request for admission that it did not admit in full, for a total of 481 additional written answers that had to be provided. The Coalition was required to produce tens of thousands of pages of documents, many of them containing sensitive and proprietary information about finances and donor information. Each of the 49 state affiliates was asked to provide documents and many states were individually subpoenaed. In all, the Coalition searched both its offices and warehouse, where millions of pages of documents are stored, in order to produce over 100,000 pages of documents.
Furthermore, nearly every aspect of the Coalition’s activities has been examined by FEC attorneys from seeking information regarding its donors to information about its legislative lobbying. The Commission, in its never-ending quest to find the non-existent “smoking gun,” even served subpoenas upon the Coalition’s accountants, its fundraising and direct mail vendors, and The Christian Broadcasting Network.
Apparently, inappropriate questions about private religious activity, similar to what is already known from the recent IRS scandal–that one religious pro-life group was asked about the content of its prayers–were not at all uncommon during Lerner’s division’s investigation of the Christian Coalition. Bopp indicated in his testimony that FEC attorneys pried into who attended Coalition prayer meetings and the nature of activities at prayer meetings.
“Deponents were also asked to explain what the positions of “intercessory prayer” and “prayer warrior” entailed, what churches specific people belonged, and the church and its location at which a deponent met Dr. Reed,” Bopp testified.
One of the most shocking and startling examples of this irrelevant and intrusive questioning by FEC attorneys into private political associations of citizens occurred during the administrative depositions of three pastors from South Carolina. Each pastor, only one of whom had only the slightest connection with the Coalition, was asked not only about their federal, state and local political activities, including party affiliations, but about political activities that, as one FEC attorney described as “personal,” and outside of the jurisdiction of the FECA [Federal Election Campaign Act]. They were also continually asked about the associations and activities of the members of their congregations, and even other pastors.
Bopp included in his testimony a transcript of the deposition of Lt. Col. Oliver North, who was asked by an FEC attorney about prayers between him and the Christian Coalition’s Pat Robertson. Hemingway describes the exchange that ensued as “testy.” A sample is below:
FEC Attorney: “I have been asking you a series of questions about your relationship with Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition… It is relevant to this inquiry what relationship you had with Pat Robertson and have asked you whether Pat Robertson had indicated to you that he was praying for you.”
Attorney for Lt. Col. North and Christian Coalition: “If that is a question, I will further object. It is an intrusion upon the religious beliefs and activities of Dr. Robertson. And how that could – how the Federal Government can be asking about an individual’s personal religious practices in the context of an alleged investigation under the Federal Election Campaign Act, I am just at a complete loss to see the relevance or potential relevance, and I consider that to be also intrusive.”
FEC Attorney: “Was Pat Robertson praying for you in 1991?”
Attorney for Lt. Col. North and Christian Coalition: “Same objection.”
Lt. Col. North: “I hope so. I hope he still is.”
In 1999, the Christian Coalition was absolved of any FEC wrongdoing. Lerner was promoted to acting General Counsel at the FEC in 2001 prior to moving on to the IRS.
Bopp told the Weekly Standard that he became concerned when he discovered that Lerner had joined the IRS. “When she left the FEC, I thought, ‘Wow, this means the not for profit division is gearing up politically.’ It didn’t bode well, because of the way [the FEC] approached cases.”
According to Politico, when Lois Lerner appears before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday for a hearing related to the targeting of conservative groups at the IRS, she is expected to invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.