A federal judge Wednesday rebuked the Obama administration’s IRS for refusing to divulge documents, including Lois G. Lerner’s emails, and warned that he would hold in contempt those who break his orders.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called the administration’s defense “nonsensical” and said the IRS must release documents every Monday to Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm that requested the documents under open records laws and then sued after the IRS didn’t comply.
“Officers of the court who fail to comply with court orders will be held in contempt,” Judge Sullivan said in a published order.
At a July 1 hearing, he ordered the IRS to turn over documents weekly. But after the hearing, the IRS approached Judicial Watch and proposed a new schedule. Judicial Watch said it would accept the schedule but wanted the IRS to make it official with the court — something the IRS refused to do.
Judge Sullivan was not pleased. He noted that the government attorneys agreed that his initial instructions were clear but violated them anyway.
“The government’s reasoning is nonsensical,” the judge wrote.
The warning was issued even as the White House affirmed President Obama’s faith in the leadership of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who top Republicans have said should be ousted for failing to right the troubled agency.
Mr. Koskinen “is a man of the highest integrity,” said White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz, who called him “the right person to lead this agency.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made his request Monday in a letter to Mr. Obama. He argued that Mr. Koskinen has repeatedly obstructed congressional investigations into the agency’s political targeting of taxpayers, and that the president vowed in 2013 to “work hand-in-hand with Congress to fix the problem.”
Mr. Schultz said the agency’s independent inspector general found no intentional effort to stymie Congress or the public, though investigators found a high level of bungling.
Chief among that was the failure of the IRS to recover the emails of Ms. Lerner, the former agency official at the center of the tea party targeting scandal whose computer hard drive crashed. The agency said it tried but was unable to recover the emails — though the inspector general recovered them from backup tapes, which investigators said the IRS never even bothered to search.
More than 900 pages of those documents were released to Judicial Watch by the IRS this month. One suggested that Ms. Lerner’s colleagues sent an intrusive request for information letter in order to prevent a group from complaining to Congress about poor treatment.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said Judge Sullivan’s displeasure with the IRS shows just how poorly the agency is performing.
“The missing-and-then-not-missing Lois Lerner saga is a stark example of the Obama administration’s contempt for a federal court and the rule of law,” Mr. Fitton said. “That Obama administration officials would risk jail rather than disclose these Lerner documents shows that the IRS scandal has just gotten a whole lot worse.”
Judge Sullivan’s warning is the second instance in recent weeks in which a federal court has accused the Obama administration of breaking an order and threatened penalties.
Judge Andrew S. Hanen has accused the Homeland Security Department of a lackadaisical approach after it approved thousands of three-year deportation amnesty applications, in defiance of the judge’s Feb. 16 order halting the Obama administration’s expanded temporary amnesty program.
Homeland Security now is racing a Friday deadline to revoke and recover all of the three-year amnesties, or else Judge Hanen has said he will demand that Secretary Jeh Johnson personally appear in court to answer for the bungle.