Lois Lerner at the FEC
Before her IRS tenure, Lerner subjected conservative groups to heightened scrutiny.


Eliana Johnson

Before Lois Lerner was embroiled in the IRS scandal, she was involved in a questionable pattern of law enforcement at the Federal Election Commission that mirrors the discrimination recently exposed at the nation’s tax-collection agency.

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.

Before the IRS, Lerner served as associate general counsel and head of the enforcement office at the FEC, which she joined in 1986. Working under FEC general counsel Lawrence Noble, Lerner drafted legal recommendations to the agency’s commissioners intended to guide their actions on the complaints brought before them.

“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. 

General counsel’s reports composed during Lerner’s tenure at the FEC confirm Engle’s recollections of a woman predisposed to back Republicans against the wall while giving Democrats a pass. Though Noble, then the FEC’s general counsel, is listed as the author of the reports, sources familiar with the commission say that given Lerner’s position, she would have played an integral role shaping their conclusions. “As head of enforcement at the FEC, Lois would have approved the drafting of every general counsel’s report,” Engle tells me.

Contributions from foreign nationals, in one instance, drew more scrutiny when they reached Republican coffers than when they fell into the hands of Democrats.

After the Republican National Committee, under the chairmanship of Haley Barbour, established the nonprofit National Policy Forum in the run-up to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the Democratic National Committee accused him of using the organization to funnel money from a Hong Kong national to the RNC. The foreigner in question had loaned the National Policy Foundation $1.6 million, and the foundation used the money to repay a debt to the RNC. The FEC’s general counsel concluded that both Barbour and RNC treasurer Alec Poitevint had “knowingly and willfully” violated federal law.

A prolonged investigation led to a stalemate among the FEC commissioners, who deadlocked along party lines and took no action against Barbour or the RNC. A subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice concluded that the loan did not constitute a political contribution.   

Democrats in a similar predicament were treated more leniently, with Lerner in one instance citing a donor’s political clout as an excuse to avoid investigating him. The House Oversight Committee was not pleased, and in 1998 held a hearing on the FEC’s failure to investigate the fundraiser, Howard Glicken, who was accused of soliciting a $20,000 contribution for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from a German national. (Glicken later pleaded guilty to doing so and paid a $40,000 fine to the FEC.) With Lerner seated before him, committee chairman Dan Burton (R., Ind.) read aloud from the general counsel’s report she had approved: “While this office would generally recommend a reason to believe finding against Mr. Glicken and conduct an investigation into the two DSCC contributions, because of the discovery complications and time constraints, this office does not now recommend proceeding against this individual or the DSCC.”