IRS officials should have known better than to trifle with U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan. Thanks to his ruling last week, Americans may soon learn much more on why a key IRS employee's emails remain beyond the reach of Congress. After IRS employees were caught in 2013 systematically delaying and harassing Tea Party and conservative groups seeking non-profit status, Lois Lerner, former head of the agency's tax-exempt organizations division, pleaded the Fifth before Congress.
Since then, it has emerged that many of Lerner's emails from the key period in question were conveniently lost in June 2011. Her hard drive allegedly crashed just days after the House Ways and Means Committee requested emails on a related controversy involving IRS harassment of donors to conservative non-profits. The data on her hard drive was subsequently deemed irretrievable, and it was destroyed in August 2011.
|Perhaps the missing emails could be chalked up to coincidence. Then again, there is ample reason not to give Lerner or the IRS benefit of the doubt.|
But Congress only learned of this fact in June, more than a year after multiple committees launched investigations of the IRS targeting scandal, and fully two months after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen first learned about it in April. Perhaps the missing emails could be chalked up to coincidence. Then again, there is ample reason not to give Lerner or the IRS benefit of the doubt.
Among Lerner's emails that were obtained by Congress, is one in which she warned colleagues to avoid revealing too much information in emails, lest they end up in Congress's hands. In the same email, Lerner sought reassurance from IRS techies that her and other IRS employees' internal instant messages were not being archived for posterity. They weren't (which is in apparent violation of federal law), which meant that Lerner and her colleagues could safely use instant messages to conduct government business safely away from inquiring congressional eyes.
Americans who are dissatisfied with the IRS's explanation for the missing emails are not alone. Sullivan initiated his own inquiry into the Lerner emails issue in connection with a case now before him — a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch. Sullivan's Aug. 14, 2014, order directs the IRS to produce by Aug. 22, 2014, specific information on IRS destruction of government records. Specifically, Sullivan has ordered the agency to provide details about its policy for tracking hard drives when they are serviced or scrapped; its policy on the magnetic destruction of data on hard drives; and “information about its efforts to recover missing Lerner emails from alternate sources (i.e., Blackberry, iPhone, iPad).” Finally, the agency must point the court to “the outside vendor who can verify the IRS's destruction policies concerning hard drives.”
With rare exceptions for factors like taxpayer privacy, national security and commercial secrets, Americans have a right to know what their government is doing – especially when it appears they may be doing wrong. Too many high officials at the IRS have too little respect for this right. Sullivan's ruling will help Americans better understand what happened in spite of the agency's sustained refusal to tell the whole truth.
Editor's note: Judicial Watch is representing the Washington Examiner in the newspaper's federal lawsuit seeking access to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau records under FOIA.