A federal judge signaled on Friday that he would force IRS officials to say under oath what happened to former agency official Lois Lerner’s crashed hard drive.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he also wanted the government to outline the qualifications of investigators looking into what happened to emails missing because of the hard drive crash.
Walton revealed his intentions during a hearing about a lawsuit that a conservative group, True the Vote, filed against the IRS.
True the Vote, which applied for and eventually received tax-exempt status, has accused the IRS of targeting it for its conservative beliefs. The IRS has acknowledged improperly scrutinizing Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration is currently investigating Lerner’s missing emails from 2009 to the middle of 2011, when her hard drive crashed.
In addition to the qualifications of the inspector general’s investigators, Walton said he wanted a firmer timeline for when that inquiry might be completed.
At a hearing Friday, Walton warned government lawyers that he wanted a quick turnaround on that information, saying he would likely require it by the end of next week.
Walton said he expected to officially make his order by the end of Friday, but also suggested that he was willing to defer at least somewhat to the inspector general’s investigation and to the multiple congressional inquiries into the IRS.
“I am one of the judges that believes the judicial branch has a limited role” in these sorts of cases, Walton said.
Walton’s expected ruling would mark the second time in as many days that a federal judge required the government to file a report under oath about Lerner’s missing emails.
Judge Emmet Sullivan, also of the U.S. District Court in Washington, ruled Thursday that the IRS had to explain under oath how some of Lerner’s emails went missing.
Lerner, who headed an IRS division overseeing exempt groups, has become the central figure in the investigations over the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
The IRS said four weeks ago that it couldn’t recover all of Lerner’s emails, which has reignited interest in investigating the Tea Party controversy. The agency told lawmakers that backup tapes for emails were recycled semiannually in 2011, and that staffers could only keep a limited number of emails in their inbox.
John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has said that the agency was able to reproduce 24,000 of Lerner’s emails from that time span, using the accounts of other IRS officials. Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for True the Vote, cast the judge’s decision as a step in the right direction, saying it would allow the group to hear from someone with firsthand knowledge about Lerner’s hard drive.
Koskinen, who took over as commissioner last December, has testified in Congress that the hard drive has been recycled and destroyed. The commissioner also told lawmakers last week that he expected the inspector general’s investigation into Lerner’s emails to be completed in a matter of weeks.
True the Vote has said it wants an independent forensic investigator to examine the hard drive.
“He’s not just taking everything the government said at face value,” Mitchell said about Walton after the nearly two-hour hearing. “He’s going to give us a little bit of help.”
Joseph Sergi, a Justice Department official representing the IRS in Friday’s hearing, maintained that the agency didn’t have to tell True the Vote about the hard drive crash because it happened two years before the group’s lawsuit.
Sergi also insisted that there was no evidence that any of Lerner’s emails were missing, even though Koskinen has said that some haven’t been found.
Mitchell argued in Friday’s hearing that the IRS should have preserved evidence for True the Vote’s case when Lerner’s hard drive crashed because of a separate lawsuit.
Z Street, a pro-Israel group, sued the IRS in 2010 over its tax-exempt status, and Mitchell said that her organization’s lawsuit was related because both groups had taken political positions contrary to the Obama administration.
But Walton had little sympathy for that argument, suggesting that was expecting too much from the government.
“I think it’s kind of a stretch,” he said.