In the few seconds Michele Bachmann had to introduce herself at a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire this summer, she promptly mentioned her credential as "a former federal tax litigation attorney.''
On her campaign website, too, the Minnesota Republican highlights her first career job as a U.S. tax lawyer in St. Paul, arguing that her experience on "hundreds of civil and criminal cases'' triggered her interest in tax simplification and adds to her qualifications for the White House.
But a review of judicial records from her tenure as an IRS attorney and interviews with some of Bachmann's former peers produce a more nuanced picture -- a set of credentials that is both more and less than Bachmann claims.
She won the respect of law school classmates at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., and was licensed to practice in Minnesota within seven or eight months of graduation. She went on to get an advanced law degree at the same prestigious Virginia college that Thomas Jefferson attended.
In her tenure as an IRS attorney in St. Paul, however, it appears that Bachmann seldom entered a courtroom and fully litigated only two cases in four-plus years, according to judicial records. Co-workers from the time describe her as pleasant and professional, but cannot recall one important case or criminal prosecution she handled.
At the root of Bachmann's legal career is an even more complex picture -- an ambitious young woman steeped in evangelical Christianity, deeply affected by her law school years at Oral Roberts, and fascinated by the intersection of biblical principles and the practice of law.
Bachmann did not respond to interview requests or written questions about her IRS career for this story. But she has repeatedly cast herself as a former tax litigator without mentioning that her job was to represent the IRS against taxpayers.
"I went to work in that system because the first rule of war is 'Know your enemy,''' she said last week at a campaign stop in Columbia, S.C.
Bachmann's legal career dates to the late 1980s, when in the span of about two years, she passed the bar exam, earned a master's degree in tax law from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and went to work in St. Paul for the chief counsel for the IRS. Records show she worked there from 1988 until early 1993. By her choice, her law license has since lapsed into restricted status (though it is not expired) and she is not currently allowed to practice, Minnesota Judicial Branch records show.
Bachmann started at the IRS at age 32, while she and her husband, Marcus, who studied counseling at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., were raising the first two of their five children.
Two former classmates from the O.W. Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts said she was an intelligent, energetic student and a forceful debater.
"I always thought she was a very serious student,'' said Dean Burnetti, a personal injury lawyer in Florida who was one of about 70 members of Bachmann's graduating class in 1986. "She was that type, always on that front row and always attentive.''
But in her signature job in jurisprudence, Bachmann never rose to any prominence and spent little time as a litigator, even though former colleagues describe it as a busy office where young lawyers had every opportunity to jump into the fray and make their mark with influential cases.
Five former IRS co-workers, who spoke on the condition they not be named, recall that Bachmann mostly stuck to lower-rung work -- settling taxpayer disputes before trial and handling her share of collection matters, refund cases and advisory work in potential criminal matters.
The co-workers said that, for whatever reason, Bachmann didn't participate in the most intense work of the office: tangling with corporations and other big taxpayers in precedent-setting disputes tried before a judge in U.S. Tax Court.
Because Tax Court is itinerant and comes to St. Paul only a few times a year, the dockets would require weeks of frantic preparation, said Tom Brever, a prominent Twin Cities tax lawyer who worked in St. Paul's IRS District Counsel office from 1978 to 1983.
"It was very, very stressful and a tremendous amount of work, but if you were a young, aggressive lawyer, you would seek opportunities to get the larger cases,'' Brever said.
Bachmann appears to have represented the IRS only twice in cases tried in U.S. Tax Court -- both small cases -- according to a search of judicial records by attorney Melissa Wexler, a research expert at Westlaw, a major provider of computerized records.
One was a win against a White Earth Indian Reservation resident named Marvin Manypenny, who contended that part of his modest income was not taxable under treaty rights.
Mary Streitz, the Minneapolis lawyer who represented Manypenny in that 1992 case, said she remembers Bachmann as "well dressed and professionally mannered.'' She said the case was "very, very small'' but had the twist of involving federal Indian law. Manypenny, she said, was sworn in with a peace pipe.
The other court case Bachmann litigated, according to Wexler's records search, was a 1990 IRS win against a blue-collar Gateway Foods worker from La Crosse, Wis., who didn't file a tax return for several years. The most he ever made during those years was $23,470 and his six-year tax deficiency was estimated by the IRS at $13,500, records show. The taxpayer, who lived with his parents for lack of money after a divorce, represented himself in court.
Colleagues from the IRS office say Bachmann was pleasant and never brought politics into her job.
Two of them distinctly remember her absences for pregnancy leaves. According to an internal staff memo dated Monday, April 13, 1992 -- as the staff was gearing up for another frantic cycle of tax court hearings -- Marcus Bachmann had informed the office on the preceding Friday that, "Michele is confined to bed rest and will not return to work until after her maternity leave.'' She gave birth to daughter Caroline two months later.
The memo was titled "Transfer of Michele Bachmann's inventory.'' It showed 11 cases that were in line for straightforward settlement; none required a trial.
Environment at Oral Roberts
What's clear from the record is that Bachmann brought deeply held religious values and legal training from outside the mainstream to her career, values shaped during her unusual law school experience at Oral Roberts.
"It was a real shocker for me to show up and hear people speak in tongues in chapel,'' said Burnetti, Bachmann's classmate. " It was a very exceptional place to go to school.''
He described a "Pentecostal'' campus resplendent with Oral Roberts' Christ's Chapel and the 200-foot-tall Prayer Tower. Many faculty members were devout Christians, and certain classes mixed biblical values with legal principles, Burnetti said. Home schooling and the right to life were two of the hottest causes.
Among the most influential faculty members, Burnetti said, was constitutional law Prof. John Eidsmoe, who was working on a book called "Christianity and the Constitution.'' Bachmann told an audience in Iowa that she was Eidsmoe's research assistant when he wrote the book. "He taught me about so many aspects of our godly heritage,'' she said in her March 2011 speech.
In the book, Eidsmoe argued that biblical principles are embodied in the Constitution, and wrote that, "Christians are needed to re-establish the moral tone of society.''
H. Wayne House, a Christian author who studied with Bachmann at Oral Roberts, said an overarching theme at the school was the integration of faith and law. He described Bachmann as a high-energy student who embraced the teachings with a "very quick mind.''
"She had a sincere interest in how one's faith and law fit together, faith and government,'' House said.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213