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Why did the IRS clean out Lois Lerner’s Blackberry as probes began?

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Congress had little opportunity to debate the Internal Revenue Service’s missing-e-mail controversy while on break during the past month, but lawmakers will have plenty to talk about when they return next week.

One question likely to come up is why the IRS wiped out Lois Lerner’s Blackberry shortly after congressional staffers interviewed the then-IRS official about suspected targeting of conservative groups.

So far, the IRS has provided no answer.

The issue came to light last month after U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the IRS to explain its efforts to recover emails that went missing when the former official’s hard drive crashed in 2011.


Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner appeared before Congress on May 22, 2013. She invoked her Fifth Amendment right rather than testify about the IRS targeting matter. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

Sullivan is presiding over a lawsuit against the IRS from the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, which wants to obtain Lerner’s e-mails. The organization suspects that the Blackberry may contain duplicates of communications that were lost when Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011.

In response to the judge’s order, a top IRS official said in a signed declaration that the agency has no record of attempting to recover data from the mobile device.

IRS attorney Thomas J. Kane said in a separate declaration that the agency “removed or wiped clean” information from the Blackberry in June 2012, shortly after congressional staffers questioned Lerner about the targeting allegations and in the same month that the IRS inspector general began examining the issue.

RELATED: A timeline of the IRS’s missing e-mails

Kane offered no explanation for why the IRS “removed or wiped clean” the data, and the IRS did not respond to the same question when asked by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

The inspector general ultimately determined that the IRS inappropriately applied extra scrutiny to certain nonprofit groups based on their names and policy positions during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

The independent watchdog launched an investigation of the missing e-mails after they became known to Congress in June, but he has released no details about the probe at this point.

Nonetheless, a lawyer for the Justice Department shed some light on the investigation during a status hearing for the Judicial Watch case in July, saying the inspector general’s office was examining Lerner’s computer and Blackberry and trying to recover information from them.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress this summer that the agency tried unsuccessfully to recover information from Lerner’s hard drive after the device failed. He said the IRS then sent the hard drive away for destruction or recycling, in line with agency protocol.

Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify at two congressional hearings about the IRS targeting matter, but she and her attorney have said she did nothing improper or illegal during her time with the agency.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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