The public got its first look Thursday at Lois Lerner, who has gone from faceless IRS bureaucrat to the face that launched what feels like a thousand congressional hearings and conspiracy theories.
But it was only a brief sighting since she didn't stay long at a House hearing to further probe her role in how some IRS workers came to target conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The night before the hearing Lerner, who heads the IRS tax-exempt operation at the scandal's heart, made it known through her lawyer that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and would refuse to testify or answer questions. And she did just that, mostly.
She did make a short statement to declare her innocence, however. Lerner's motivation was more transparent than much of what IRS has done in connection with this controversy. She was determined to get her side of the story out, at least the main points as she saw it. After all, she's had to endure many days of lawmakers and journalists accusing her of deception in her past dealings with them, and worse.
"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee," she said.
There was one problem. By reading her statement and acknowledging that a document she was handed contained information she had provided, Lerner prompted some Republicans to claim she had essentially waived her Fifth Amendment right. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chair of the House Oversight Committee which conducted Wednesday's hearing, indicated he was seeking legal advice on the matter.
However, legal expert Stan Brand told NPR's Peter Overby and the Washington Post he thought it unlikely a court would agree that she had forfeited her constitutional rights.
In any event, Lerner's conclusions about her own rectitude aren't likely to win over many converts.
She was, after all, the IRS official who answered that planted question at a recent American Bar Association conference - the one that made the IRS trend on Twitter for weeks now. In her canned answer to the planted question, she blamed low-level workers in the agency's Cincinnati office for targeting groups with "Tea Party" and "patriot" in their names.
To say that many people found the planted-question gambit unseemly would be an understatement. That tactic apparently wasn't solely Lerner's idea: The IRS' recently fired acting commissioner, Steven Miller, told senators Tuesday he deserves blame for that one. He and Lerner had discussed how to get the details out before a Treasury inspector general's report on the matter went public.
Still, the mere fact that Lerner is caught up in the scandal has genuinely surprised Bruce Hopkins, a veteran tax lawyer in Kansas City who knows her through numerous conferences where they both appeared on panels or as speakers.
"Overall, I've always had a very high regard for her and I think she is far more qualified and more talented than most" IRS officials he has observed over the years, he said. "I think she's probably as good as can be gotten here for a government position like this.
"That's why I was surprised to learn she was involved with something like this. It didn't fit. It still doesn't fit. I have trouble understanding what has happened."
Hopkins' high opinion, earned over the years of his seeing her in action, is no doubt something for her to cling to as she finds herself at the center of a storm. On the other hand, something recently written by David Cay Johnston, a journalist who knows the IRS better than many people who work there, is exactly the sort of thing she may want to put out of her mind:
"Only a person lacking a sense of honor and integrity would cling to their job in the face of the horrendous damage caused to the agency they work for, to her superiors and to the welfare of the Republic if her mistakes prompt even more IRS budget cuts.
"No one in this century has done more to breed disrespect for our tax system than Lois G. Lerner, undermining the public confidence on which voluntary compliance rests."
It would be hard to find stronger evidence for her having become the face of this scandal than that.
What was billed as an informational meeting for teachers turned into a session of sharing and healing.
"A lot of people in this district will need grief counseling, including myself," said Susan Pierce, the superintendent of public schools in Moore, Okla.
She teared up when greeted with a standing ovation on Wednesday from the hundreds of teachers who filled Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. With the district's communications systems still down following Monday's tornado, Pierce said a mass gathering was the best way to correct "information and misinformation" circulating throughout the school community.
She covered a variety of housekeeping matters. High school graduations will take place as scheduled on Saturday. The payroll system is nearly up and running again. The school year, interrupted abruptly a few days early, is officially over and done and teachers will not be docked for the days missed, although they're expected to show up Thursday to say goodbye to students who will be allowed into the remaining schools to gather their belongings.
But much of the meeting was spent applauding principals, teachers and support staff who had stepped up in the crisis.
She encouraged teachers to hug firefighters and police officers, while calling the people who work at the schools that suffered the worst damage "the greatest heroes I know today."
"People who think there's no prayer in public schools weren't around Monday afternoon," Pierce said, to applause from the gathering.
Pierce reminisced about preparing remarks for a retirement tribute that was to have taken place Tuesday. Before the storm, she said, she'd planned to recall lighthearted happy moments, but her thoughts kept going back to other trying times — previous storms and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the violent murders of three schoolchildren.
"Monday night, it hit me, that those were the times I forged the relationships with the people that I was working with," Pierce said. "You know the strength of someone's character and their ability to stand by your side in times or turmoil."
Teachers gave frequent ovations. Although pain was evident on many faces — particularly among those from Briarwood and Plaza Towers, the two elementary schools destroyed by the storm — teachers were clearly ready to celebrate moments of bravery, the stories retold of their colleagues draping their own bodies over children, singing to them and holding their hands.
"Don't let anybody second-guess or question what you've accomplished," said Robert Romines, who will take over as schools superintendent in Moore in July.
Pierce said that teachers should feel free to tell their stories to reporters but should also feel under no obligation to do so.
"I was home last night in my pajamas when a reporter from The Wall Street Journal came to my door," Pierce said in one of several lighter moments that drew laughter. "My husband saved me from him."
Janet Barresi, Oklahoma's state superintendent for public instruction, assured teachers that her department was at their service. Already, the hallways of her building are stuffed with bottled water, diapers and other donated goods the Red Cross didn't have room to store.
Barresi said she's received pledges of help from all over the country and encouraged Moore teachers to come up with ideas of items they would need.
"Think big, folks," she said. "Give us a list of what you need and we're going to go shopping."
Pierce said she had also received offers of help too numerous to count.
"We have to tell you right now that we don't even know what we need," she said. "But we will soon, so leave us your name and phone number."
Sports-talk radio was abuzz this morning with some comments that Sergio Garcia, the professional golfer, made about his frequent foil, Tiger Woods.
"We'll have him 'round every night," Garcia said. "We will serve fried chicken," Garcia said.
The comment came after Garcia was asked if he would invite his rival, with whom he has a frosty relationship, to his house during next month's U.S. Open. Woods responded to Garcia's tweets on Twitter: "The comment that was made wasn't silly. It was wrong, hurful and clearly inappropriate...I'm confident that there is real regret that the remark was made." (Garcia offered a textbook non-apology apology.)
Wait. This again?
This black-people-and-fried-chicken thing is really old. — it's not even the first time a professional golfer made a joke about fried chicken and Tiger Woods.
What is it with this stereotype about black people loving fried chicken?
I asked Claire Schmidt for help. She's a professor at the University of Missouri who studies race and folklore. Schmidt said that chicken had long been a part of Southern diets, but they had particular utility for slaves. They were cheap, easy to feed, and a good source of meat.
But then, Schmidt says, came Birth of a Nation.
D.W. Griffith's seminal and supremely racist 1915 silent movie about the supposedly heroic founding of the Ku Klux Klan features a group of actors portraying shiftless black elected officials acting rowdy and crudely in a legislative hall. (The message to the audience: these are the dangers of letting blacks vote.) Some of the legislators are shown drinking. Others had their feet kicked up on their desks. And one of them was very ostentatiously eating fried chicken.
"That image really solidified the way white people thought of black people and fried chicken," Schmidt said.
Schmidt said that like watermelon, that other food that's been a mainstay in racist depictions of blacks, chicken was also a good vehicle for racism because of the way people eat them. (According to government stats, blacks are underrepresented among watermelon consumers.) "It's a food you eat with your hands and therefore it's dirty," Schmidt said. "Table manners are a way of determining who is worthy of respect or not."
But why does this idea still hold traction since fried chicken is clearly a staple of the American diet? Surely, KFC, Popeye's and Church's ain't national chains because of the supposed culinary obsessions of black folks.
"I's still a way to express racial [contempt[ without getting into serious trouble," Schmidt said. (Among the Code Switch team, we've started referring to these types of winking statements as "racist bankshots.")
"How it's possible to be both a taboo and a corporate mainstream thing just shows how complicated race in America is," Schmidt said.
It's also worth citing the great social theorist Dave Chappelle who quipped that when it comes to race and food, people of color suffer from some real information asymmetry.
"The only reason these things are even an issue is because nobody knows what white people eat," Chappelle said.
Christopher Guest, known as a leader in the mockumentary style after his 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, has a new show on HBO. It's called Family Tree, and stars Chris O'Dowd as a man tracking down his family lineage after receiving a mysterious box from an aunt he didn't know existed. Guest came in to talk to Weekend Edition Host Scott Simon about his career, inspiration for the show and working on a funny set.
Guest has an interesting family history himself; for example, one of his relatives was a ventriloquist who performed for King George III. Guest has been interested in ventriloquism since childhood, and even included himself doing some uppercutting in his movie Best in Show. It wasn't until after the film that Guest learned of his own family connection to ventriloquism in a diary he found among the dozens of boxes left when his father passed away.
That's when Guest realized he might have an interesting subject for a new show. Family Tree even features a sort of ventriloquism (per Guest's handiwork), in the form of a monkey puppet worn by the main character's sister to help cope with a past trauma.
"The monkey tells the truth invariably," says Guest.
As Guest is known for making such humorous films during the interview, Simon asked him if there's a lot of laughter on the set of Family Tree.
"I will not permit that. [pause] I'm kidding." Guest explained, "I think people aren't laughing in the middle of the work; they're laughing before and afterwards. But they're professionals and they do these scenes and we do the work and there's laughter before and after."
And as you might guess, there is no script for Family Tree. He and co-creator Jim Piddock wrote outlines for each of the shows and detailed character backgrounds, but no dialog.
Now, I've asked a whole lot of people to pose for I Heart NPR pictures. Every so often I still get nervous, and because I'm such a big fan, this was one of those times. When I asked Guest if he'd mind posing for us, I showed him some of the previous photos we've taken at NPR West. He had the idea for how to personalize his shot: hold up a picture of someone else holding up the I Heart NPR sign.
"It's funnier this way, right?" he said. So we looked at the gallery on the front of my desk, and when Guest spotted Jane Lynch (who has been in a number of his films including For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind and Best in Show), he said in an affectionate tone, "Oooh, Jane."
We grabbed her picture and headed out to take his picture. And of course he's right it is meta, I mean mega, fun.
What is the case against Wisconsin farmer Vernon Hershberger really about? It depends on whom you ask.
To hear the prosecution, it's about licensing, not raw milk: Hershberger, a dairy farmer hailing from the town of Loganville, is on trial this week for operating without three licenses. He's also accused of continuing to sell raw milk to members of his private club after he was ordered not to.
If convicted, the father of 10 faces more than a year in jail and more than $10,000 in fines.
Prosecutors say they aren't debating the safety of raw milk — and the judge in the case has pretty much banned all mention of the stuff in the courtroom. His defense team tells us that one trial spectator wearing a T-shirt expressing support for raw milk had to turn it inside out before he was allowed in the courtroom.
But activists say the case is about raw milk and much, much more.
Fundamentally, they say, it's about personal food freedom and the rights of farmers and consumers to enter into private contracts without government intervention.
"As a mother, I have the right to choose the nutritious foods that I want to feed my son. I don't want the government making that choice for me," says Jen Morrison, a member of Hershberger's Grazin' Acres private food buying club.
In addition to raw milk, she gets beef and poultry raised by Hershberger and his family. In return, she pays a $25 annual membership fee — considered an investment in the farm — plus the cost for each product she buys (such as a gallon of raw milk). Occasionally, her family volunteers on the farm.
Across the nation, private food clubs, where members claim an ownership stake in the farm, have become a popular way to skirt laws that limit or bar sales of raw milk. (The Food and Drug Administration bars the interstate sale of raw milk, but laws regulating intrastate sales vary from state to state.)
Club members argue that if you own a stake in the farm, then you're not technically buying or selling raw milk. But regulators aren't buying it: From California to Minnesota, prosecutors have cracked down on private food clubs selling raw milk.
Some food activists see these cases as an assault on all private contracts between farmers and consumers — which is why Hershberger's case has become a rallying point for the dozens of activists from around the country who've shown up in Baraboo, Wis., for the trial. They've set up camp across the street from the courthouse — in the Al Ringling Theatre, no less — where they're hosting a week of "Grow Your Own Food Freedom" events.
"I'm concerned that producers of other commodities — not just raw milk, but eggs, meat and produce — will start to put burdensome regulations on farmers markets," says Wisconsin Raw Milk Association board member Margo Redmond, who has been at the trial.
But such fears are misplaced, says Susan Schneider, director of the LL.M. program in agricultural and food law at the University of Arkansas.
Raw milk has special status under the law, says Schneider, because of the public health risks involved. Though raw milk aficionados believe their drink of choice has extra nutritional benefits when consumed fresh from the cow, the FDA says pasteurization is needed to kill microbes that may linger in the milk.
"I really think that this case is about raw milk," Schneider says, "but even more specifically, it's about the right of the state to have some basic public health licensing requirements for food that is recognized as having some potential health problem." And that right, she says, is a pretty well-established legal principle.
Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. Just because regulators are cracking down on raw milk buying clubs, he says, doesn't mean that other ventures that allow consumers to buy food directly from farmers — such as community-supported agriculture, for example — are in jeopardy. Unlike CSAs, he notes, raw milk buying clubs were devised "as a way to dodge or avoid food safety regulations."
No one has gotten sick from drinking Hershberger's raw milk, notes Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the farmer in the case. So if no one's being harmed, he says, shouldn't consenting adults be allowed to make a private agreement about the foods they want to consume? "Do they have the right," Kennedy asks, "to be left alone?"
Nope, that's not the way the law works, says Hamilton. You can consent to whatever you want, he says, but it still "has to be legal."
With additional reporting in Baraboo, Wis., by Maureen McCollum of Wisconsin Public Radio.