EDITORIAL: Lerner must testify without immunity in IRS scandal

The investigation into IRS targeting of conservative groups is dragging on like a Las Vegas summer. Not because, as the Obama administration and Democrats charge, this is a “phony scandal,” and certainly not for lack of proof, as more evidence turns up almost every day. Rather, it’s the agency’s complete lack of cooperation — to the point of lawlessness — particularly from tea party-targeting ringleader Lois Lerner.

Wednesday brought the latest developments. As reported by The Washington Examiner, Ms. Lerner — the former director of exempt organizations for the IRS — cautioned colleagues against including comments in official emails and text messages that might be seen by Congress. An email from Ms. Lerner to IRS technology staffer Maria Hooke and Nannette Downing, chief of the IRS Exempt Organizations Exam Unit, read: “I was cautioning folks about email and how we have several occasions where Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails — so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails. Someone asked if OCS [in-house instant messaging] conversations were also searchable — I don’t know, but told them I would get back to them. Do you know?”

The email was sent April 9, 2013, a month before the IRS scandal broke.

Ms. Hooke responded that instant messages weren’t set to automatically save, though the “parties involved … can copy and save the contents of the conversation to an email or file,” according to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

To which Ms. Lerner responded: “Perfect.”

Perfect, indeed. The high-ranking IRS official who conveniently had lost two years’ worth of emails also would have no concerns about an audit trail of instant messages that might further reveal the agency’s concerted effort to target conservative nonprofits. And as for that cautionary email, what was Ms. Lerner — who has already twice exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination at House Oversight Committee hearings — warning her employees about? If the IRS was doing nothing wrong, what was there to hide?

As it turns out, some of what she might have tried to hide may still exist. The Daily Caller reported Ms. Lerner actually printed out some of her missing emails, according to a statement Wednesday by her attorney, Bill Taylor. Initially, Mr. Taylor said Ms. Lerner did not print out and file her emails because she “did not think it was required.” But such a high-level IRS official surely knows it’s required by the Federal Records Act. Furthermore, The Daily Caller noted, there are clear instructions for employees on the IRS website.

In a more positive development, The Associated Press reported that a federal judge on Thursday ordered the IRS to explain — under oath, in writing and within 30 days — how two years of Ms. Lerner’s emails went missing, and ordered the agency to come up with a plan within 60 days to recover whatever data might still be accessible.

Last week, an Arizona Republic editorial stated that the only way to move this investigation forward is to get Ms. Lerner to talk — via immunity from prosecution. Ms. Lerner needs to talk, all right, but in light of the past week’s news, she cannot possibly be given immunity. The IRS regularly operates with absolute ruthlessness and no mercy in its dealings with the public, and in this case, we’ve seen nothing but complete contempt from the highest-ranking agency officials, all as the administration looks the other way and President Barack Obama himself says there’s “not even a smidgen of corruption” within the IRS.

Remember, this isn’t about partisan sniping. This is about an executive branch agency working to influence the outcome of the 2012 election in favor of the party — and the president — in power.

It’s one thing to offer reduced sentences or penalties for cooperating, but full immunity must be off the table. Ms. Lerner and the IRS are long overdue for a heavy dose of karma.