IRS: Lerner emails are lost

The IRS told lawmakers on Friday that former agency official Lois Lerner’s computer crashed in 2011, leaving it unable to provide some emails sent to outside government officials.

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The tax agency added that it was almost finished handing over some 67,000 emails sent by or from Lerner, the IRS official who set off a firestorm in May 2013 by acknowledging that the agency had improperly scrutinized Tea Party groups.

But that explanation didn’t sit well with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who called for immediate investigations by both the Justice Department and Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration.

“The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’s response to congressional inquiries,” Camp said in a statement.

The IRS disclosed the computer crash in a Friday letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the committee’s top Republican, who are conducting their own investigation into the IRS.

IRS officials told Wyden and Hatch that it would still be able to hand over 24,000 Lerner emails from 2009 to 2011, by using records from more than 80 other IRS officials.

In a statement, the IRS added that these additional emails are outside the scope of the Finance panel’s investigation into the agency’s singling out of Tea Party groups, and that IRS staff had been unable to restore Lerner’s hard drive after it crashed in 2011.

The 11,000 emails that are relevant to the investigations, the IRS said, have already been turned over. The agency added in its statement that it had also made “unprecedented efforts” to comply with congressional requests, with more than 250 agency employees working more than 120,000 hours, at a cost of almost $10 million.

“The IRS has remained focused on being thorough and responding as quickly as possible to the wide-ranging requests from Congress,” the agency said.

Wyden said in a statement that the Finance panel was looking to finish off its bipartisan investigation, and was “now working with the IRS to determine if any relevant documents were not provided and will continue to work toward a release of our bipartisan report.”

But Hatch was less forgiving, calling Friday’s admission “an outrageous impediment to our investigation” that would delay the release of the Finance panel’s report.

“While the IRS has agreed to turn over additional documentation, I am still greatly troubled that the Administration failed to notify the Committee of this when they first became aware of it,” Hatch said.

Camp went even further, saying the computer crash would keep Congress in the dark about emails Lerner might have written to the White House, Treasury Department, Justice Department, the Federal Election Commission and Democratic congressional offices.

The Ways and Means chairman added that the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, had made “an empty promise” when he vowed this year to produce all documents pertaining to Lerner.

“Instead, because of this loss of documents, we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone,” Camp said.

The House voted last month to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress, after she twice declined to testify before the Oversight Committee. Republicans ruled that Lerner, the former head of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, waived her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by declaring her innocence in an opening statement.

Camp and the Ways and Means Committee have also urged the Justice Department to examine whether Lerner should be prosecuted on crimes punishable by up to 11 years in prison.

But Republicans are also trying to make the case that President Obama and other top Democrats pressured the IRS into overly scrutinizing Tea Party groups, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Congressional Democrats have said there’s no proof that anyone in the White House was involved in the IRS scrutiny, or that anyone at the agency was politically motivated.

Koskinen has said for months that he wants Congress to wrap up its investigations, so the IRS can both learn from their findings and put the targeting controversy behind it.