the staff of the Ridgewood blog
Washington DC, Judicial Watch last week asked a federal court to unseal the depositions of Lois Lerner, the former director of the Exempt Organizations Unit of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and Holly Paz, her top aide and former IRS director of Office of Rulings and Agreements. Both played key roles in the targeting of conservative nonprofit groups opposed to Obama policies in the run up to the 2012 presidential election.
The request came in an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division supporting NorCal Tea Party Patriots’ class action lawsuit seeking the unsealing of the depositions (NorCal Tea Party Patriots, et al. v. The Internal Revenue Service, et al. (No. 1:13-cv-00341)). The depositions were sealed by a federal judge after Lerner’s and Paz’s lawyers claimed the two were receiving threats. Judicial Watch’s brief argues that the documents sought may shed light on government misconduct, and the shielding of internal government deliberations does not serve the public’s interest.
Judicial Watch details how the Lerner and Paz depositions may significantly impact ongoing Judicial Watch lawsuits seeking information about misconduct of government officials in the IRS targeting scandal:
In addition to the revelation of IRS employees’ conduct in the emails uncovered, the records obtained by Judicial Watch [in the course of its FOIA investigation] also sparked investigations into Lois Lerner’s emails and IRS’ failure to preserve thousands of emails that were potentially relevant to the various investigations about the IRS’ treatment of conservative groups. While the federal government has now admitted that the targeting “was wrong” and “for such treatment, the IRS expresses its sincere apology” the IRS continues to this day to withhold from the public in Judicial Watch’s main IRS case … email communications with Lois Lerner and/or Holly Paz …
Lerner was actively engaged in the attempted cover-up of IRS misconduct. In July 2016, Judicial Watch revealed that both Lerner and Paz, knew the agency was specifically targeting “Tea Party” and other conservative organizations two full years before disclosing it to Congress and the public. They also knew donor lists of tax-exempt organizations were being used to target those donors for audits.
After refusing to acknowledge the targeting, Judicial Watch forced the IRS to finally admit in that the agency had used “inappropriate political labels” to screen the tax-exempt applications of conservative organizations. IRS agents were targeting organizations requesting tax-exempt status based on “guilt by association” and “party affiliation.” Judicial Watch brought to light that the IRS was going to require 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations to restrict their alleged political activities in exchange for “expedited consideration” of their tax-exempt applications.
In April 2015, Judicial Watch released court ordered IRS documents that included an email from Lerner asking that a program be set up to “put together some training points to help them [IRS staffers] understand the potential pitfalls” of revealing too much information to Congress. The documents also contain a Lerner email from 2013 in which she says she is willing to take the blame on some aspects of the scandal. She also indicates that she “understands why the IRS criteria” leading to the targeting of Tea Party and other opponents of the President Obama “might raise questions.”
In July 2015, Judicial Watch revealed the IRS scandal also included the Justice Department and FBI as well. According to documents obtained by Judicial Watch under court order, in an October 2010 meeting, Lerner, Justice Department officials and the FBI planned for the possible criminal prosecution of targeted nonprofit organizations for alleged illegal political activity. As part of that effort, the Obama IRS gave the FBI 21 computer disks, containing 1.25 million pages of confidential IRS returns from 113,000 non-profit, 501(c)(4) social welfare groups as part of its prosecution effort. According to a letter from then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, “This revelation likely means that the IRS – including possibly Lois Lerner – violated federal tax law by transmitting this information to the Justice Department.”
“In a republic, citizens have a right to know what their government is up to, especially when officials abuse the powers entrusted to them,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “This effort to seal Lois Lerner and Holly Paz depositions for all time is affront to the rule of law and government accountability.”
In response to Judicial Watch’s litigation, the IRS initially claimed that emails belonging to Lerner were supposedly missing. Later, IRS officials conceded that the “missing” emails were on IRS back-up systems. Throughout its litigation, Judicial Watch repeatedly exposed a variety of IRS record keeping inconsistencies, erroneous claims, and failures to produce court-ordered records:
In June 2014, the IRS claimed to have “lost” responsive emails belonging to Lerner and other IRS officials.
In July 2014 Judge Emmett Sullivan ordered the IRS to submit to the court a written declaration under oath about what happened to Lerner’s “lost” emails. The sworn declarations proved to be less than forthcoming.
In August 2014, Department of Justice attorneys for the IRS finally admitted Judicial Watch that Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe. The IRS’ attorneys also disclosed that Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) was looking at several of these backup tapes.
In November 2014, the IRS told the court it had failed to search any of the IRS standard computer systems for the “missing” emails of Lerner and other IRS officials.
On February 26, 2015, TIGTA officials testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it had received 744 backup tapes containing emails sent and received by Lerner. This testimony showed that the IRS had misled Congress, Judge Sullivan, and Judicial Watch that Lerner’s emails were irretrievably lost. The testimony also revealed that IRS officials responsible for responding to the document requests never asked for the backup tapes and that 424 backup tapes containing Lerner’s emails had been destroyed during the pendency of Judicial Watch’s lawsuit and Congressional investigations.
In June 2015, Judicial Watch forced the IRS to admit in a court filing that it was in possession of 6,400 “newly discovered” Lerner emails. Judge Emmet Sullivan’s ordered the IRS to provide answers on the status of the Lerner emails the IRS had previously declared lost. Judicial Watch raised questions about the IRS’ handling of the missing emails issue in a court filing, demanding answers about Lerner’s emails that had been recovered from the backup tapes.
In July 2015, U.S District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan threatened to hold John Koskinen, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and Justice Department attorneys in contempt of court after the IRS failed to produce status reports and recovered Lerner emails, as he had ordered on July 1, 2015.