Judicial Watch announced today that a federal court ordered the release of testimonyof Lois Lerner, 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 IRS officials played key roles in the targeting of conservative nonprofit groups and individuals opposed to Obama policies in the run up to the 2012 presidential election.
The ruling in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Ohio Western Division unsealing the case records comes in the lawsuit (NorCal Tea Party Patriots, et al. v. The Internal Revenue Service, et al. (No. 1:13-cv-00341)).
Lerner’s and Paz’s depositions were sealed by Judge Barrett in April 2017, after Lerner’s and Paz’s lawyers claimed the two officials were receiving threats. The court finally ordered the unsealing of the depositions four years after plaintiffs requested the depositions be unsealed and only after plaintiffs filed for a writ of mandamus to force action in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
In December 2017, Judicial Watch submitted an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in support of plaintiffs’ request that the depositions should be unsealed. Judicial Watch argued that the release of the deposition transcripts “may shed light on government misconduct … on the grounds that shielding internal government deliberations in this context does not serve the public’s interest in honest, effective government.” The brief continued:
The courts have long recognized a “strong presumption in favor of openness as to court records. The burden of overcoming that presumption is borne by the party that seeks to seal them. The burden is a heavy one: ‘Only the most compelling reasons can justify non-disclosure of judicial records.’ Moreover, the greater the public interest in the litigation’s subject matter, the greater the showing necessary to overcome the presumption of access.”
The original NorCal Tea Party Patriots lawsuit in which Lerner and Paz gave depositions was a class-action lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of the Treasury and named individual officials claiming that:
Elements within the Executive Branch of the federal government, including Defendants, brought the vast powers, incomprehensible complexity, and crushing bureaucracy of the IRS to bear on groups of citizens whose only wrongdoing was their presumed dissent from the policies or ideology of the Administration. In other words, these citizens were targeted based upon their political viewpoints.
The lawsuit was settled in 2017 when the Justice Department awarded the plaintiffs over $3.5 million for “attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses, and incentive awards.” In settling the case, the DOJ admitted the IRS abused its power and the criteria it used to screen applications for 501(c) status was inappropriate. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated:
The IRS’ use of these criteria as a basis for heightened scrutiny was wrong and should never have occurred. It is improper for the IRS to single out groups for different treatment based on their names or ideological positions. Any entitlement to tax exemption should be based on the activities of the organization and whether they fulfill requirements of the law, not the policy positions adopted by members or the name chosen to reflect those views.
“Lois Lerner’s IRS was abused by Obama and his congressional allies to suppress the Tea Party movement and other opponents in the run-up to his reelection. This is how one steals an election in plain sight,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The Obama IRS scandal was a run-through for the abuse of Trump in 2016 and beyond by Obama agencies and appointees. These depositions of Obama’s IRS officials will help Americans understand the continued clear and present danger of the IRS to our civil liberties.”
Judicial Watch uncovered troves of documents about the Obama IRS scandal (see, for example, here and here). Judicial Watch filed at least nine Freedom of Information Act lawsuits about the IRS scandal, and much of what is known about the scandal resulted from Judicial Watch litigation and investigations.
Here is a partial summary of Judicial Watch disclosures:
· In September 2014, a Judicial Watch FOIA lawsuit forced the release of documents detailing that the IRS sought, obtained and maintained the names of donors to Tea Party and other conservative groups. IRS officials acknowledged in these documents that “such information was not needed.” The documents also show that the donor names were being used for a “secret research project.”
· 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 …”
· Also in July 2015, Judicial Watch released Obama IRS documents confirming that the agency used donor lists of tax-exempt organizations to target those donors for audits. The documents also show IRS officials specifically highlighted how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may come under “high scrutiny” from the IRS.
· In July 2016, Judicial Watch through a federal court order in one of its FOIA lawsuits (Judicial Watch v Department of Justice (No. 1:14-cv-01239)) obtained FBI “302” documents, which contain detailed narratives of FBI agent investigations, revealing that top Washington IRS officials, including Lois Lerner and Holly Paz, knew that the agency was specifically targeting “Tea Party” and other conservative organizations two full years before disclosing it to Congress and the public.
The FBI 302 documents also confirm the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) 2013 report that said, “Senior IRS officials knew that agents were targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny as early as 2011.” Lerner did not reveal the targeting until May 2013, in response to a planted question at an American Bar Association conference. The documents reveal that then-acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller actually wrote Lerner’s response, where she admits:
They [IRS staff] used names like Tea Party or Patriots and they selected cases simply because the applications had those names in the title. That was wrong, that was absolutely incorrect, insensitive, and inappropriate.
· In November 2016, after the IRS refused to acknowledge its targeting of conservative groups, Judicial Watch forced the release of IRS records revealing the agency 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. FBI “302” documents uncovered by Judicial Watch also reveal that IRS officials stated that the agency was targeting conservative groups because of their ideology and political affiliation in the summer of 2011.
· Judicial Watch also separately uncovered in its lawsuit Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:13-cv-01559) that Lerner was under significant pressure from both Democrats in Congress and the Obama Justice Department and FBI to prosecute and jail the groups the IRS was already improperly targeting. In discussing pressure from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to prosecute these “political groups,” Lerner admitted, “it is ALL about 501(c)(4) orgs and political activity.”
· In March 2017, Judicial Watch obtained IRS documents through its FOIA lawsuit Judicial Watch v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:15-cv-00220) that contain admissions by IRS officials that the agency used “inappropriate political labels” to screen the tax-exempt applications of conservative organizations. Other records uncovered reveal 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 June 2018, Judicial Watch obtained internal IRS documents through one of its FOIA lawsuits (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. Internal Revenue Service (No. 1:13-cv-01559)) revealing that Sen. John McCain’s former staff director and chief counsel on the Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee, Henry Kerner, urged top IRS officials, including then-director of exempt organizations Lois Lerner, to “audit so many that it becomes financially ruinous.” Kerner was appointed by President Trump as Special Counsel for the United States Office of Special Counsel.
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.