Former IRS executive Lois G. Lerner told a federal court last week that members of her family, including “young children,” face death threats and a real risk of physical harm if her explanation of the tea party targeting scandal becomes public.
Ms. Lerner and Holly Paz, her deputy at the IRS, filed documents in court Thursday saying tapes and transcripts of depositions they gave in a court case this year must remain sealed in perpetuity, or else they could spur an enraged public to retaliate.
“Whenever Mss. Lerner and Paz have been in the media spotlight, they have faced death threats and harassment,” attorneys for the two women argued.
Ms. Lerner and Ms. Paz gave taped depositions in a class-action lawsuit brought by tea party groups demanding answers and compensation for having been subjected to illegal targeting for their political beliefs.
The government settled the class-action lawsuit in Ohio and another tea party challenge in the District of Columbia in two agreements last month, admitting to the illegal behavior. The Ohio settlement also called for the government to pay $3.5 million to the tea party groups, according to one of the plaintiffs.
Ms. Lerner came in for particular criticism, with the government admitting she not only didn’t stop the targeting — contradicting the Obama administration’s claims — but also hid it from her superiors in Washington.
During the course of the Ohio case, the tea party groups filed thousands of pages of documents, but testimony from Ms. Lerner and Ms. Paz was left out of the public record because of their earlier request for privacy.
Now Ms. Lerner and Ms. Paz say that since the case has been settled, there is no reason for their testimony to ever become public.
“The voluminous record of harassment and physical threats to Mss. Lerner and Paz and their families during the pendency of this litigation provides a compelling reason to seal the materials,” the women’s attorneys said.
They particularly blamed Mark Meckler, a tea party leader whose organization helped fund the class-action lawsuit, saying he helped stoke the threats against them by calling IRS agents “criminal thugs.”
“These words matter. They have created a fertile environment where threats and harassment against Mss. Lerner and Paz have flourished,” the lawyers said.
Mr. Meckler laughed when he learned about the filing.
“Four years of harassing innocent American citizens for their political beliefs, and she’s scared of a guy in a cowboy hat talking to a bunch of little old ladies at a tea party event?” he said, recounting the speech where he called IRS agents “thugs.”
He said if the depositions didn’t show any bad action on her part, then Ms. Lerner should have nothing to fear from their release to the public.
“The reality is because she knows she is guilty as the day is long and she doesn’t want people to know what she actually did,” he said.
“It’s hard to have any sympathy for the women. And frankly, I don’t believe she’s genuinely scared,” Mr. Meckler said.
The Trump administration backs making the documents public, according to court documents, which leaves Ms. Lerner and Ms. Paz fighting a rearguard action.
So far, they have had Judge Michael R. Barrett on their side. As the case was proceeding, he kept the two IRS employees’ testimony secret at their request, allowing only the lawyers involved to see the information.
Papers filed by the tea party groups’ attorneys repeatedly made reference to their testimony in documents, but it was always redacted.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, a newspaper that covers the Cincinnati office of the IRS that initially handled tea party groups’ applications and that Ms. Lerner initially blamed for the targeting, has been fighting to make her version of events public.
The paper renewed that request last month, the day the government and the tea party groups announced their settlement. The paper has argued that there is no “clear and imminent danger” to Ms. Lerner or Ms. Paz.
Ms. Lerner has refused to talk publicly about her handling of the tea party cases, even being held in contempt of Congress when she botched her assertion of Fifth Amendment rights during testimony.
But the Obama Justice Department refused to prosecute the case, saying it concluded Ms. Lerner’s assertion of Fifth Amendment rights was correct.
Under President Obama, the department, in its own investigation into the IRS handling of tea party cases, also credited Ms. Lerner with being one of the bright spots, saying she attempted to curtail the targeting when she learned of it.
But the government now says that is not true. In its settlement last month, the government says Ms. Lerner not only didn’t stop the targeting, but also hid the behavior from superiors.
Ms. Lerner has yet to comment on that settlement.