IRS watchdog conducts criminal probe into Lerner emails

Greg Nash

The IRS inspector general is conducting a criminal probe into how the agency handled former official Lois Lerner's emails.

The IRS initially told lawmakers that emails from Lerner, the former official at the heart of the Tea Party targeting scandal, were lost. But many Lerner emails were found despite claims from officials that they were not backed up.

"There is potential criminal activity," Timothy Camus, the deputy inspector general for investigations, told the House Oversight Committee at a late Thursday hearing, according to reports.

Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George and Camus, his deputy, told the Oversight panel they were also working with recovered hard drives from IRS email servers that could contain additional emails. But it is unclear whether that data can be recovered.

The investigators learned earlier this month that there were over 400 additional back tapes that could contain Lerner's emails from a crucial period in 2011. According to reports, the IG's office was not notified about those backups, which took them only two weeks to find.

The officials learned about the back-up tapes after demanding additional documents that IRS had not initially shared. One of those documents made clear that there were hundreds of other tapes.

“We were following up on our initial interviews, we realized we were missing a document. When we obtained that document and reviewed it, we realized that there were an additional population of tapes that had been unaccounted for,” Camus told lawmakers.

Asked by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who was responsible for turning over that document, Camus responded, “it was an IRS document.”

George and Camus both said their investigation was in an early stage.

“It seems that the best course of action would be to have the inspector general come back when his report is complete,” said ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Lerner was the head of the IRS unit responsible for tax-exempt status. She apologized to lawmakers after it was discovered that IRS officials improperly targeted Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. She insisted, though, that she had done nothing wrong, and retired from the IRS in 2013.

The controversy sparked a number of congressional probes, but lawmakers' investigations were stymied after the IRS told Congress that Lerner's computer had crashed in 2011, leaving many emails lost.

Officials claimed there were no backups. But in November, the Treasury inspector general said it had recovered about 30,000 emails from Lerner from 2009 to 2011.