The Internal Revenue Service administrator currently embroiled in controversy over the targeting of conservative political groups seeking tax exemption status is a career federal government official, who worked at both the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department before landing at the IRS.
Academics and campaign finance experts who have interacted with Lois Lerner – currently on administrative leave after declining a request for her resignation – say they found her fair and non-partisan in her implementation of the law, though some conservatives are alleging a deeper history of bias.
Lerner, the official who was in charge of the IRS division overseeing tax exempt groups, riled lawmakers on both sides of the aisle May 22 when she declined to answer questions before the House Oversight Committee, citing her right against self-incrimination. But she did defiantly claim she was guilty of no wrong-doing.
Lerner was a staff attorney in the criminal division at the Department of Justice before joining the FEC's general counsel's office in 1981. She was appointed head of the enforcement division in 1986, according to a 2000 FEC press release announcing her appointment as temporary acting general counsel for the FEC. She graduated from Northeastern University and earned her law degree at the Western New England College of Law, according to the release.
Paul Ryan, a campaign finance expert and senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, says he's always thought highly of Lerner.
"If anything, my critique of Lois Lerner would be that we've always complained that the IRS has not enforced these restrictions rigorously enough," he says. "But I've always perceived her to be a very fair individual, non-partisan in execution of her duties over the years, and I think she had that reputation when she was at the FEC as well."
Ellen Aprill, tax law professor at Loyola Law School, who has interacted with Lerner in academic settings says, "I always thought she was dedicated, helpful, caring, articulate and straightforward."
But a former colleague of Lerner's during her time at the FEC, where she served for more than 20 years, told the National Review Online she was "pro-regulation." Lerner was also cited by the story as having an integral role in some FEC reports perceived to be more critical of Republicans than Democrats, though her boss' name was signed to the documents.
Another report, from the conservative Daily Caller, states Lerner's husband's law firm has "strong" connections to President Barack Obama because its Atlanta office is led by a prominent Democrat who organized a voter registration drive ahead of the 2012 election.
Fran Hill, professor at the University of Miami School of Law, says rather than bias on Lerner's part, it appears the IRS troubles were the result of ignorance of the subject matter, egregiously poor management skills and a reluctance to put out clear guidance for groups seeking the 501(c)(4) tax exempt status.
"The idea that [Lerner] knows something about the law relating to tax exempt organizations because she'd worked in money and politics under a totally different statute over at the FEC is one of the real problems in this matter," she says. "Lois had a background in a different subject area in a much smaller agency; I think there's no comparison in the size and complexity of the FEC and the IRS."
Hill, citing the recently released Inspector General report that slammed the IRS' tax exemption division, says, "there was horrible administration."
"I do not see why, if one told the people who reported to you, do not do this – that you were not all over it to see that they most assuredly did not do the thing you told them not to do," she says. "And I don't see why guidance back to Cincinnati should have taken a year or whatever it was."
Several congressional committees have already held hearings looking into the IRS' behavior and two officials have been forced to resign. Lawmakers have also asked for more details on the agency's chain of command and internal documents to shed light on if there was White House involvement in the scandal, and if there are others who should be held accountable. Dozens of conservative groups targeted by the IRS have also filed lawsuits against the agency.
A request for comment from the IRS and Lerner was not immediately returned.