A federal judge is demanding more information from the IRS on how it tried to recover data from former agency official Lois G. Lerner’s hard drive when it crashed.
The order from U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan came after the agency outlined in sworn testimony steps taken by specialists to repair the drive, and it keeps alive a scandal over the agency’s lost emails that for the time being has shifted from Congress to the courts.
Judge Sullivan has given the IRS until Friday to provide more answers about its efforts to recover Ms. Lerner’s emails from sources other than her hard drive and about why the hard drive was apparently not tracked in the agency’s inventory system.
The president of the group suing the IRS over access to the emails said the court order is unprecedented and that the agency’s meager initial response demonstrated “contempt for the seriousness with which Judge Sullivan is taking this issue.”
“We didn’t ask him to do this extraordinary step — he did this on his own,” said Tom Fitton, president of the legal watchdog group Judicial Watch. “It is almost impossible to overstate the extraordinary nature of this court intervention.”
Judge Sullivan directed the agency to provide more details in its second round of testimony, going as far as demanding information about an outside vendor to answer questions about the IRS policy on destroying hard drives.
The initial testimony was mostly limited to cataloging the efforts to fix the hard drive itself and notably did not mention any broader effort to tap into backup systems or a network, noted Daniel J. Metcalfe, the director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy for more than 25 years.
“If your hard drive crashed and seemed beyond repair, you would be looking to have your emails restored from your computer network,” he said.
IRS officials have notified Congress that some of Ms. Lerner’s emails from 2009-2011 were irretrievably lost when the hard drive crashed. Ms. Lerner is the central figure in the tea party-targeting scandal, and her emails have been requested by several congressional committees.
The IRS has tried to recover some of the messages by asking others to dig through their mailboxes to see if they were included on emails from Ms. Lerner. But the agency acknowledged some messages may never be recovered.
Mr. Metcalfe said that since the judge offers the Blackberry, iPhone and iPad as examples of “alternate sources” in the email recovery, the agency could still narrowly tailor its response.
“What Judicial Watch ought to do is ask the judge to not overlook the significance of backup tapes in a situation such as this,” he said.
That could come later this month, when Mr. Fitton says there will be a joint meeting to discuss the records.
Judge Sullivan has appointed Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, an expert in e-discovery, to manage negotiations between the IRS and Judicial Watch over the release of more records in the case.
The IRS did not respond to a request for comment and has said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.