- Lois Lerner, the embattled director of Exempt Organizations at the IRS, served as head of the Federal Election Commission's (FEC) enforcement division from 1986 until 2001.
- While there, the FEC sued the Christian Coalition for allegedly conspiring with political candidates.
- During the case, representatives for the FEC asked intrusive questions on religion of several people involved, including Lt. Col. Oliver North.
- At one point, a representative demanded to know details regarding Pat Roberstson praying for North after reading a letter from North to Robertson indicating as much.
- The group's attorney also noted that during the investigation third parties were required to comply with "burdensome FEC document requests," reminiscent of the IRS/Tea Party requests.
- The Christian Coalition's attorneys adamantly objected, and the group eventually rebuffed the charges.
Internal Revenue Service Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner listens during testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee May 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
New questions are being raised today about Lois Lerner and the attitude she's taken in the past regarding conservative and Christian groups. The Weekly Standard is pointing to the questioning of people related to the Christian Coalition in the 1990s when Lerner was the head of the Enforcement Office at the Federal Election Commission (FEC). In short: the FEC was investigating if the Christian Coalition was "coordinating issue advocacy expenditures with a number of candidates for office," the Weekly Standard explains, and the questions they were asking became ridiculously intrusive -- especially about faith and prayer.
The Christian Coalition successfully fought off the allegations, but not before investigators took nearly 100 depositions.
"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," the Christian Coalition's attorney at the time, James Bopp, Jr., told the Weekly Standard. "Eighty-one depositions! Eighty-one! From Ralph Reed's former part-time secretary to George H.W. Bush. It was mind blowing."
And "mind blowing" may be the only way to describe what he detailed in a 2003 testimony before the United States Committee on House Administration [emphasis added]:
FEC attorneys continued their intrusion into religious activities by prying into what occurs at Coalition staff prayer meetings, and even who attends the prayer meetings held at the Coalition. This line of questioning was pursued several times. 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.
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.
But it doesn't end there. Bopp's testimony includes a transcript of questioning between the FEC and Lt. Col. Oliver North to illustrate Bopp's point. In that transcript, the FEC representative started prying into why the Lt. Col. thanked Pat Robertson for prayers in a letter. See it below (Q stands for the FEC rep, A denotes North's response, and O is the objection raised by Christian Coalition attorneys), and note the questioner's befuddlement at the objections raised to the line of questioning [emphasis added]:
Q: (reading from a letter from Oliver North to Pat Robertson) “‘Betsy and I thank you for your kind regards and prayers.’ The next paragraph is, ‘Please give our love to Dede and I hope to see you in the near future.’ Who is Dede?”
A: “That is Mrs. Robertson.”
Q: “What did you mean in paragraph 2, about thanking -you and your wife thanking Pat Robertson for kind regards?”
A: “Last time I checked in America, prayers were still legal. I am sure that Pat had said he was praying for my family and me in some correspondence or phone call.”
Q: “Would that be something that Pat Robertson was doing for you?”
A: “I hope a lot of people were praying for me, Holly.”
Q: “But you knew that Pat Robertson was?”
A: “Well, apparently at that time I was reﬂecting something that Pat had either, as I said, had told me or conveyed to me in some fashion, and it is my habit to thank people for things like that.”
Q: “During the time that you knew Pat Robertson, was it your impression that he had - he was praying for you?”
O: “I object. There is no allegation that praying creates a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act and there is no such allegation in the complaint. This is completely irrelevant and intrusive on the religious beliefs of this witness.”
O: “It is a very strange line of questioning. You have got to be kidding, really. What are you thinking of, to ask questions like that? I mean, really. I have been to some strange depositions, but I don't think I have ever had anybody inquire into somebody’s prayers. I think that is really just outrageous. And if you want to ask some questions regarding political activities, please do and then we can get over this very quickly. But if you want to ask about somebody’s religious activities, that is outrageous.”
Q: “I am allowed to make-’’
O: “We are allowed not to answer and if you think the Commission is going to permit you to go forward with a question about somebody’s prayers, I just don't believe that. I just don't for a moment believe that. I ﬁnd that the most outrageous line of questioning. I am going to instruct my witness not to answer.”
Q: “On what grounds?”
O: “We are not going to let you inquire about people’s religious beliefs or activities, period. If you want to ask about someone’s prayers-Jeez, I don't know what we are thinking of. But the answer is, no, people are not going to respond to questions about people’s prayers, no.”
Q: “Will you take that, at the first break, take it up- we will do whatever we have to do.”
O: “You do whatever you think you have to do to get them to answer questions about what people are praying about.”
Q: “I did not ask Mr. North what people were praying about I am allowed to inquire about the relationship between-’’
O: “Absolutely, but you have asked the question repeatedly. If you move on to a question other than about prayer, be my guest."
Q: “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 I have asked you whether Pat Robertson had indicated to you that he was praying for you.”
O: “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.”
Q: “Was Pat Robertson praying for you in 1991?”
O: “Same objection.”
A: “I hope so. I hope he still is.”
You can read the entire testimony below. The transcript starts on page 18:
But Bopp told the Weekly Standard it was even worse than the transcript shows -- because he had raised more objections. Additionally, Bopp pointed out in his 2003 testimony that third parties also faced "burdensome" and "irrelevant" document requests -- an eerie similarity to the targeting undertaken by the IRS against conservative groups:
So when Lerner was promoted to her IRS position, he grew concerned.
"She was in effect being promoted for what she had done at the Federal Election Commission and now was going to be expected ... to replicate that at the IRS and now we know that's exactly what happened," he said.
And considering the events that transpired in recent years at the IRS, that concern doesn't seem unfounded.
This story has been updated.