When news of the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups broke, the response from Democrats ranged from dismissive neglect to indignant denial. President Obama referred to the scandal as "phony." The acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, since unceremoniously decommissioned, chalked up the controversy to "horrible customer service." No one who worked for Mr. Obama seemed remotely disturbed — let alone apologetic — about the rolling revelations of wrongdoing.
Lois Lerner, the head of the exempt organizations unit in Washington charged with persecuting the president's political enemies, categorically denied any impropriety. The closest she came to a spirit of contrition was to isolate the wrongdoing to a few "line people in Cincinnati" and to begrudgingly concede that some of the work done was "not so fine."
Her personal defenses, however, were nothing short of strident, even defiant. In fact, Ms. Lerner was so anxious to deliver her exonerating remarks that she inadvertently surrendered her right to plead the Fifth. She angrily declaimed, "Members of Congress have accused me of providing false information. I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this committee."
The road from impunity to immunity, however, is often paved by mounting evidence. More and more compelling corroboration surfaced that the IRS was genuinely involved in political subterfuge, that its efforts were directed in way one or another from Washington, and that Ms. Lerner played a principal, even zealous role in orchestrating the entire scheme.
Now, she is apparently in talks with Rep. Darrell E. Issa's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the possibility of exchanging her testimony for immunity. She has, of course, obtained legal representation. Presumably, the testimony she is suddenly prepared to barter recounts skulduggery at her former office, no longer the stuff of partisan imagination. Also, her request for immunity is a not-so-implicit acknowledgment of her own culpability. Given Ms. Lerner's rank, and her intimate involvement in the IRS office transformed to a campaign outpost for Mr. Obama, she is potentially a deep fount of incriminating disclosures. Her newfound cooperativeness could lead to a deluge of similarly strategic apologies, each traded in to self-interestedly implicate a higher grade of accomplice.
However, since she remains under subpoena, she could be legally compelled to testify at any time without insulating her from prosecution. Speaking to The Daily Caller, oversight committee adviser Ali Ahmed said, "The chairman did not adjourn the hearing, he recessed it. Ms. Lerner remains under subpoena. The committee has not made any offer of immunity to Ms. Lerner. The committee has, however, indicated a willingness to listen to any offers from her attorney about what she would testify to if it was offered."
The fact that the committee is entertaining her offer, as if she possessed leverage she clearly does not have, is a grim indication that it's prepared to coddle as a witness an accomplice to a crime. Ms. Lerner shouldn't be lionized as a whistleblower regarding corruption in which she enthusiastically participated. She has already been treated like a victor, generously granted a six-figure pension on the taxpayers' dime, after being officially pronounced thoroughly incompetent by professional review. Ms. Lerner has done remarkably well for a woman bad at both her job and obeying the law.
The unseemly trend among public figures has been to furiously disavow all accusations until incontrovertible evidence is publicly produced. Then and only then, the accused finds penitence, and seeks redemption through overwrought confession in search of public forgiveness. This is the Anthony D. Weiner model: deny, denounce, beg for mercy and then reboot in a fit of ersatz moral renewal. Public absolution, however mortifyingly procured, is the price of fake rehabilitation and real success.
The newer tendency — less theatrical, but also less conciliatory — is to skip the contrived mea culpas and negotiate legal amnesty. Later on, once the dust clears, Ms. Lerner can always take a turn to Piers Morgan in penance and to announce her new book deal. By then, she will have bowdlerized her insistent deceptions into a gossamer narrative of personal redemption. Maybe Susan Sarandon will play her in a movie produced by MSNBC.
Ivan Kenneally is the editor in chief of the Sourcing Journal.