Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blumenthal And Lerner

U.S. Senator Dick Blumenthal is not just your run of the mill senator. Mr. Blumenthal entered the U.S. Senate a little over three years ago after having spent twenty one years as Connecticut’s Attorney General.

The new Senator has had some difficulty shedding his attorney general’s skin.  Some critics in Connecticut – there are not many – occasionally refer to him teasingly as the nation’s first consumer protection congressman.

As Attorney General of Connecticut, Mr. Blumenthal often seemed to be a consumer protection firebrand armed with subpoena power. The statutory obligations of the Attorney General’s Office have little to do with suits brought on behalf of consumers such as Big Tobacco. The Connecticut Attorney General is charged principally with representing Connecticut in legal matters involving state agencies, duties and responsibilities of the office that are detailed in the Connecticut General Statutes, Section 3-125 as follows:

“The Attorney General shall have general supervision over all legal matters in which the state is an interested party, except those legal matters over which prosecuting officers have direction. He shall appear for the state, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary, the Treasurer and the Comptroller, and for all heads of departments and state boards, commissioners, agents, inspectors, committees, auditors, chemists, directors, harbor masters, and institutions and for the State Librarian in all suits and other civil proceedings, except upon criminal recognizances and bail bonds, in which the state is a party or is interested, or in which the official acts and doings of said officers are called in question, and for all members of the state House of Representatives and the state Senate in all suits and other civil proceedings brought against them involving their official acts and doings in the discharge of their duties.”

The transformation of the Attorney General’s office, engineered by Senators Lieberman and Blumenthal, from a sleepy constitutional operation representing state agencies in legal matters into a big-bite consumer protection watchdog, cast considerable glitter on both politicians. The lionization of the attorney general as the “people’s lawyer,” which began with Mr. Lieberman, became embarrassingly cloying during Mr. Blumenthal’s long and much publicized reign; so much so that it was often said of the ambitious Blumenthal that the most dangerous spot in Connecticut was between the attorney general and a television camera. Both former Attorneys General successfully launched their senate careers from their publicity rich springboard.
When Mr. Blumenthal joined the U.S. Congress as Connecticut’s “senior senator,” the tug of his former shtick proved irresistible. Most recently, Mr. Blumenthal has turned his efforts toward the regulation of electronic cigarettes. E-Cigs, as they are sometimes called, are non-carcinogenic, nicotine injection systems. Unlike real cigarettes, they are neither heavily taxed nor heavily regulated, and the electronic variant has moved many cigarette smokers away from a medically costly, often demonized product. To the extent that E-Cigs have weaned cigarette smokers off the weed, the unregulated product also has reduced federal and state revenue. Mr. Blumenthal’s intervention will for this reason be welcomed by tax gobbling legislators. Revenues lost from a product widely denounced as cancer causing must be replaced somehow: Why not tax E-Cigs as if they were coffin nails – even if they are not?

Ideally, one wants an official moving from the Attorney General’s office into the U.S. Senate to carry with him into his new position all his previous virtues, while leaving behind his grosser vices.

As a U.S. Senator with more than twenty years investigatory and prosecutorial experience, Mr. Blumenthal certainly is better able than other senators to defend the honor of the Congress when persons summoned by the U.S. House to offer testimony either mislead or deny to investigation committees the data congressmen need to discharge their responsibilities.

Which brings us to Lois Lerner, the head honcho of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at a time when the IRS was effectively preventing conservative groups from exercising their constitutional rights to assemble for the purpose of engaging in political activity by subjecting such groups to extraordinary scrutiny.

Called upon by a congressional committee to give needed testimony, Ms. Lerner pronounced herself innocent of any wrongdoing and then, on the advice of counsel, proceeded to take the 5th, thus denying Congress the data it needed to accomplish the committee’s purposes and violating both the spirit and the letter of the 5th amendment, which does not allow testifiers to both proclaim their innocence and refuse to disgorge testimony on the grounds that doing so would tend to incriminate them.

After the IRS Inspector General reported that the once impartial Internal Revenue Service had targeted 248 conservative Tea Party organizations for extra scrutiny, Mr. Blumenthal issued a ritualistic denunciation of the agency, but he has been mum ever since, an unusual posture for the media-seeking Blumenthal. One can only imagine the rhetoric that would have flowed from Attorney General Blumenthal had any witness he summoned for interrogation publically announced their innocence of wrongdoing and then retreated behind the 5th amendment.

When Mr. Blumenthal was given an opportunity to vote in favor of an amendment that would have declared it “unlawful for any officer of the Internal Revenue Service to, regardless of whether the officer or employee is acting under the color of law, willfully act with the intent to injure, oppress, threaten, intimidate or single out and subject to undue scrutiny for purposes of harassment any person or organization of any state – (1) based solely or primarily on the political, economic or social positions held or expressed by the person or organization; or 2) because the person or organization has expressed a particular political, economic, or social position using any words of writing allowed by law” the senator’s starched scruples gave way, and he voted, along with eight other Democratic Senators, none of whom were up for election in 2014, to kill the amendment.

In any contest between scruples and party loyalty, the usual congressman would not hesitate to bury his scruples. Mr. Blumenthal, it was sometimes thought, was above party flackdom.

Not anymore.

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