By Bernie Becker - 06/16/14 05:37 PM EDT
House Republicans intensified their investigations into the Internal Revenue Service on Monday, just days after the agency said it couldn’t reproduce emails from former agency official Lois Lerner.
The Ways and Means panel, led by Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), added that it would seek emails from the White House, the Treasury Department and a string of other executive offices to fill in gaps created by the loss of Lerner’s emails.
The committee said that it interviewed IRS information technology staffers on Monday and that Koskinen was scheduled to testify on June 24. Koskinen should expect questions about whether IRS staffers failed to follow agency rules when it came to Lerner’s emails, when the agency knew the emails couldn’t be recovered and whether the IRS consulted with outside experts on how to retrieve the lost documents, the committee said.
Camp and Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (La.), a senior Republican on the Ways and Means panel, also called for a forensic audit to determine what happened to Lerner’s emails.
“We are simply not going to accept the IRS claim that these documents are not recoverable,” the two Republicans said. “We will demand the president live up to his promise to work ‘hand in hand’ with Congress to get the facts.”
In addition to the White House and the Treasury Department, the Ways and Means Committee asked the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Election Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for emails between their staffers and Lerner.
Separately, the Oversight panel, headed by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), will examine whether the agency violated the Federal Records Act, which requires government offices to keep certain records safe. Issa has subpoenaed Koskinen to appear before the panel on June 23.
“I will not tolerate your continued obstruction and game-playing in response to the committee’s investigation,” Issa said.
The congressional responses to the IRS came the same day that the Oversight panel said President Obama and other top Democrats had pressured the IRS into singling out Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Josh Earnest, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary, told reporters that the IRS had already turned over thousands of Lerner’s emails, and pushed back on the idea that the administration was hiding anything.
“If we're trying to hide those letters and emails from congressional oversight, there's a pretty large loophole,” Earnest said. "The far-fetched skepticism expressed by some Republican members of Congress, I think, is not at all surprising, and not particularly believable."
A Democratic official also pointed out that Issa said in 2008 that "archiving in the digital age is not as easy as it might seem to the public."
In all, the agency says it will have soon turned over close to 67,000 Lerner emails, including 11,000 that it says are directly related to the congressional investigations into the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
Lerner startedthat controversy in May 2013 by acknowledging that the IRS had improperly scrutinized applications from Tea Party organizations seeking tax-exempt status. The House has since held Lerner in contempt of Congress, ruling that she waived her rights against self-incrimination by proclaiming her innocence at a hearing last year.
Republicans and even some nonpartisan analysts have openly questioned how Lerner’s emails can’t be retrieved, especially because Koskinen told lawmakers in March that the agency’s emails were “stored in servers.”
But the IRS told Congress on Friday that, until May 2013, it only kept backed-up copies of employee emails for six months before reusing the digital tapes used for storage.
The IRS says it stopped recycling and began storing those tapes last May, the same month that Lerner apologized for the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
Because it has roughly 90,000 employees, the IRS says it also limits the number of emails that its employees can keep in their inboxes at a time, something it said Friday was “not an uncommon practice within the government or the private sector.”
That means that each individual IRS staffer can only keep around 6,000 emails, a figure that was even lower — at roughly 1,800 — before July 2011. Each employee got to choose which emails to keep and which to archive in the hard drive on their computer. Hard copies would also be kept of emails considered official documents.
But the IRS added that if a staffer’s hard drive crashed, there would be no electronic copies remaining of archived emails, which is what the agency says happened to Lerner.
Still, the IRS seemed to understand that it could face some criticism for what happened to the emails, telling lawmakers it wanted to explain “why it is so complicated for the agency to respond to what otherwise in this modern day seem like straightforward requests."