The Lerner Phenomenon

By J.F. McKenna

Just in time for Independence Day 2014, Uncle Sam blazes a trail in the forest of bureaucratic apologia, a new and improved version of “The dog ate my homework, teacher.” Like most federal concoctions, this one is wildly egregious as well as potentially expansive, asking the citizen to swallow whole the equivalent of “The dog ate my homework, and then a bear ate my dog.”

And there’s no better site to perfect such a stress test on facts than the Internal Revenue Service, whose unofficial motto is borrowed from that master stretcher-teller Mark Twain, who once declared, “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”

Twain, of course, was making a satirical point when he first uttered that bon mot. The IRS & Co.—in particular, former tax-lady Lois Lerner—is in dead earnest about official prevarication.

Allow me to quickly recap several earlier acts of the comic opera I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help. The IRS has been hip-deep in controversy over disputes about its scrutiny of political groups, especially tax-exempt organizations not in full concord with the current administration.

As the journalistically redoubtable Wall Street Journal recently summarized, “The former IRS Director of Exempt Organizations was at the center of the IRS targeting of conservative groups and still won’t testify before Congress.” OK, to be fair, let’s hear it for that constitutionally enshrined right against self-incrimination. Score one for civil liberties.

At the same time, though, consider Lerner’s overall rights-for-me-but-not-for-thee record, again as laid out by the WSJ in a recent lead editorial: As an IRS director, Lerner “shipped a database of 12,000 nonprofit tax returns to the FBI, the investigating agency for [the Department of] Justice’s Criminal Division. The IRS, in other words, was inviting Justice to engage in a fishing expedition, and inviting people not even not even licensed to fish in that pond.”

Obviously, emails between Uncle Sam’s agencies can fill in many a bureaucratic blank about this situation. Yet, as the Journal wrote, a year had passed before the IRS could locate Madame Lerner’s high-tech missives, which by then had attracted the scrutiny of a House Oversight Committee.

“The Oversight Committee had to subpoena Justice to obtain them, and it only knew to do that after it was tipped to the correspondence by discoveries from the judicial watchdog group Judicial Watch,” the newspaper reported. “Justice continues to drag its feet in offering up witnesses and documents. And now we have two years of emails that have simply vanished into the government ether.”

That’s right—confidential digital documents gone, followed by the announcement that other IRS offcials’ emails had vanished, followed by The White House’s saying that it had “found zero emails” related to Lerner, followed by the latest announcement that the former IRS official’s hard drive had been recycled. (Oh yeah, just for good measure, add in the latest discovery that the IRS cancelled its email-server contract after the reported crash three years ago.)

To borrow one more line from the WSJ, “Never underestimate government incompetence, but how convenient.” The only other dramatic touch this tale lacks is a voiceover from The Twilight Zone host Rod Serling—“For your consideration….”

Speaking of consideration, where does the tax-paying citizen factor into The Lerner Phenomenon, other than picking up the tab for the damages? And the damages will prove to be profound, especially in terms of the open exercise of individual rights.

As noted at the top, this Beltway farce unfolds even as we get ready to celebrate the nation’s independence. It might be worthwhile to re-examine two of the indictments the authors of our Declaration of Independence leveled against England’s king in 1776:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.

Generations later, good old Mr. Twain improved on the Founding Fathers’ lyrics but kept the general tone of public dissatisfaction—and certainly anticipated our current dilemma as framed by The Lerner Phenomenon: “The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble.”

And that, most definitely, is the unvarnished truth.


J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at



  1. JF McKenna says:

    A Lerner Phenomenon update as of 6-25: Yahoo News reports that the former IRS official suggested referring U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for an audit in 2012. That’s according to new emails released today by the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee.
    See, not all the emails are gone.
    And the plot, like my coffee, continues to thicken.

  2. ’Lois Lerner TiP of the Day: ‘Need to be cautious about what we say in emails.’

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