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Judge prods IRS for details on Lerner email

A federal judge asked the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for more information on efforts it made to recover missing email from the computer of an agency official at the heart of a quarrel between Congress and the Obama administration over scrutiny of Tea Party organizations.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order Thursday giving the IRS until Aug. 22 to come up with further details on what it did to retrieve email from the malfunctioning computer of Lois Lerner signals his dissatisfaction with the agency’s earlier explanation, contained in an Aug. 11 filing.

The order comes in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the activist group Judicial Watch. The complaint seeks Lerner’s email and other communications concerning the processing of applications for tax-exempt status.

The IRS’s earlier filing included sworn statements by agency technicians about the futile steps they took in 2011, first to repair the hard drive on Lerner’s computer and then to retrieve data on it.

Sullivan’s order asked for information on efforts made to recover the missing email from alternate sources such as portable communications devices like an iPhone, Blackerry or iPad, details of how the IRS tracks computer parts and how it deletes data from equipment being taken out of use.

Sullivan also asked for information about an “outside vendor who can verify the IRS’s destruction policies concerning hard drives.”

“Today’s order confirms Judicial Watch’s read of this week’s IRS’ filings that treated as a joke Judge Sullivan’s order,” Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch president, said in an emailed statement.

Dean Patterson, an IRS spokesman, didn’t immediately reply to an email requesting comment.

The case is Judicial Watch v. IRS, 13-cv-01559, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

The IRS in June told a congressional committee investigating the agency’s review of Tea Party groups seeking nonprofit status that a hard drive crash on Lerner’s computer prevented it from obtaining much of her email from 2009 to 2011.

The Judicial Watch litigation and the congressional inquiry were triggered by Lerner’s statement in May 2013 that the IRS singled out for extra scrutiny the applications of groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their name.

Anti-tax Tea Party groups, some of which included the word “patriot” in their name, formed shortly after President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took office in January 2009 and helped fuel gains by Republicans in the 2010 elections.

Lerner, who retired last year, oversaw IRS employees who determined whether groups seeking nonprofit status were too political to qualify for it.

Interest in her email increased after she declined to answer investigators’ questions, invoking her constitutional right against self-incrimination.