IRS officials don't recall physical damage to Lerner's hard drive

A pair of IRS technicians said under oath that they tried unsuccessfully to recover data from former agency official Lois Lerner’s hard drive, according to new court documents released Monday.

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Neither technician said they saw any sign of physical damage on the hard drive, painting a similar picture to what IRS officials have been saying for months — that Lerner’s computer crashed on its own in 2011, leaving missing an untold number of her emails over a two-year span.

Lerner, who apologized in May 2013 for the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups, is the central figure in that controversy.

The IRS employees made the statements in response to a lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog that has sought a wide range of Lerner’s emails as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

In July, Judge Emmet Sullivan of U.S. District Court in Washington gave the IRS a month to detail why it can’t recover all of Lerner’s emails, and ordered the agency and Judicial Watch to work with another judge to try to recover missing emails.

Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president, said the filings fell far short of what the group was expecting.

“This latest IRS filing seems to treat as a joke Judge Sullivan’s order requiring the IRS to produce details about Lois Lerner’s 'lost' emails and any efforts to retrieve and produce them to Judicial Watch as required under law,” Fitton said in a statement. “Frankly, it seems the cover-up continues.”

The filings tell a similar story to court documents released last month as part of a separate lawsuit filed by another conservative organization, True the Vote.

IRS officials said in those filings that Lerner’s hard drive was wiped clean and destroyed in 2011, a standard procedure to protect confidential taxpayer information. The agency added that it generally doesn’t put serial numbers on individual hard drives, but received the serial number for Lerner’s from an outside contractor.

Stephen Manning, a top IRS technology official, offered identical statements in response to the two lawsuits.

Aaron Signor, the first IRS technician to examine Lerner’s hard drive in June 2011, said in the filings that he doesn’t recall seeing any physical damage to the drive, and that he sent Lerner’s hard drive to a more experienced technician after being unable to recover data from it.

House Republicans, citing an interview with a separate IRS technician, said last month that Lerner’s hard drive was “scratched,” with some suggesting the former head of the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups deliberately damaged her hard drive.

Democrats later said that technician, John Minsek, also said there was no sign the hard drive was sabotaged.

Minsek, who received the hard drive after Signor, said in his own court filing that he was unable to recover data from Lerner’s hard drive, after using a variety of approaches and didn't say whether the hard drive was physically damaged. 

Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration is conducting its own investigation into the missing emails.

Thomas Kane, another senior IRS official, said that investigation wouldn’t affect the agency’s ability to process the roughly 24,000 emails involving Lerner between 2009 and 2011 that it found from other accounts.

Kane told congressional investigators last month that Lerner’s emails could still exist on back-up tapes, a statement latched on to by GOP lawmakers.

Judge Reggie Walton of the district court last week denied True the Vote’s request to allow an independent expert to search for the emails, saying it would complicate the inspector general’s investigation. The inspector general has told the courts it has 15 staffers working on that investigation.

Judicial Watch had asked the court to allow it to potentially force IRS officials to testify about the lost emails, while the government has asked Sullivan to defer to the inspector general at this time.

The Obama administration has argued in both the True the Vote and Judicial Watch cases that the government had no obligation to inform the groups about the missing emails because the hard drive crashed almost two years before the Tea Party controversy broke.