CINCINNATI — Details about tea party bias claims against the IRS could remain secret because current and former agency officials say their lives are in danger if they publicly testify about the case.
Lois Lerner and Holly Paz both have argued in recent court filings that the threat to their lives outweighs the public’s right to hear their testimony about how IRS employees in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., handled applications for tax-exempt status from tea party groups.
They recently filed evidence to support their claim under seal in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. Though that evidence has not been made public, court records indicate it relates to death threats and other harassment the women say they endured after their names were connected to the bias claims against the IRS several years ago.
“This documentation, as the court will see, makes very personal references and contains graphic, profane and disturbing language that would lead to unnecessary intrusion and embarrassment if made public,” their attorneys argued in a recent court brief. “Public dissemination of their deposition testimony would put their lives in serious jeopardy.”
Attorneys for the tea party groups suing the IRS say the argument against full disclosure doesn’t hold up. They asked the court Wednesday to make the IRS officials’ testimony public and to also open a May 19 hearing to the public.
Their arguments, like most documents in the case, are not publicly available because U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett ordered them filed under seal. The hearing on May 19 will address those issues, but it, too, is closed to the public.
Edward Greim, an attorney for the tea party groups, said he’s not permitted to discuss the brief he filed under seal, but said the allegations against the IRS are serious and the public has a right to know what happened. The tea party groups expect Lerner and Paz to shed light on the issue when they testify in sworn depositions.
“Generally, our position is that this is a matter of great public interest and there is no legal basis for sealing the depositions or the arguments about whether the depositions should be sealed,” Greim said.
The lawsuit in Cincinnati is one of several filed against the IRS after agency officials acknowledged in 2013 they had singled out conservative-leaning “public interest” groups for extra attention while reviewing their applications for non-profit, tax-exempt status. Under the law, such groups are permitted to conduct some political activity as long as it is not the majority of their work.
A Senate subcommittee found in 2014 that the IRS used inappropriate criteria to judge the tea party groups, but it found no evidence of political bias in the selection of those groups for additional scrutiny. Applications from some liberal-leaning groups also were delayed, but about 80% of groups affected were conservative.
Lerner, the agency’s former Exempt Organization director, resigned over the scandal. Paz, who worked under her, was reassigned.
Paz has previously said the Cincinnati office, which is home to the IRS’ non-profit division, was overwhelmed by applications from conservative groups when the tea party movement began in 2009 and employees struggled with how to process so many applications.
In their written argument to Barrett, attorneys for Lerner and Paz said the threats against the women should take precedence over public disclosure, which they argued is not necessary.
“Although there is a compelling need for sealing, there is no countervailing need to make those details public,” they wrote. “Allowing public dissemination … would likely lead to media coverage that may then subject both individuals to the very harms they seek a protective order to avoid.”