Vern Buchanan is now the first member of Congress to call for a federal court to unseal secret testimony from former IRS senior executive Lois Lerner.
Lerner and her immediate subordinate, Holly Paz, emerged as two key figures after it was discovered in 2013 that the IRS had given extra scrutiny to hundreds of conservative groups seeking nonprofit status leading up to the 2012 presidential campaign.
Much of those actions took place at the IRS’ nonprofit determination offices in downtown Cincinnati, which the agency later deemed “improper.” Lerner and Paz headed the division from Washington. The revelations led to the resignations of several top officials, including the former head of the IRS.
Lerner and Paz filed a motion with U.S. District Court Judge Michael R. Barrett last month asking that tapes and transcripts of their depositions be forever kept secret from the public, saying that they feared for their safety.
But an attorney representing Tea Party groups says that any instances of harassment took place nearly four years ago, and is arguing that the courts who’ll deny their request and open the docket for public inspection. The secrecy issues are among those remaining in a class-action lawsuit covering hundreds of Tea Party groups that faced illegal scrutiny in their nonprofit status applications.
“Lois Lerner betrayed the nation’s trust yet managed to avoid accountability and criminal charges,” says Buchanan, the Sarasota Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee responsible for the IRS. “Now she wants to keep her role in the illegal targeting scheme secret, free from public scrutiny. What is she hiding? The public deserves answers.”
The Justice Department, class action plaintiffs, and multiple news organizations including The Wall Street Journal and Cincinnati Enquirer have all since requested unsealing documents in the case.
In October, the Justice Department announced that it had agreed to a $3.5 million settlement with groups that were targeted based on their political leanings.
The financial agreement was based partly on the secret testimony of Lerner.
According to a three-year investigation by the House Ways and Means committee, Lerner used her position to improperly influence agency action against conservative organizations, denying these groups due process and equal protection rights under the law. She impeded official investigations by providing misleading statements in response to questions from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and may have disclosed confidential taxpayer information.
Buchanan isn’t the only Republican calling to unseal the records.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator running for Ohio governor next year, joined the Cincinnati Enquirer’s side last week by filing an amicus brief, according to Cincinnati.com.
After the Justice Department told the House Ways & Means Committee in September they would not prosecute Lerner, Buchanan strongly objected.