By Bernie Becker - 06/17/14 08:40 PM EDT
Congressional Republicans acknowledged Tuesday that losing a string of emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner could imperil their investigation into the agency’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
Top GOP lawmakers insisted they weren’t ready to say that a trove of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011 is totally unrecoverable, even as the Internal Revenue Service was telling them that her hard drive from that period had been destroyed.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said that he was as worried as he’s ever been that there would be holes in the panel’s bipartisan investigation into the IRS, which began shortly after Lerner apologized for the agency’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups in May 2013.
Hatch said he left a Monday meeting that he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had with IRS Commissioner John Koskinen with plenty of questions, but he said he didn’t blame Koskinen for what happened.
“The whole thing just reeks of cover-up,” Hatch said. “I think there’s some very big problems here as far as getting answers.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a senior member of the committee, added that he couldn’t believe the emails were lost for good.
“I don’t think that stuff just disappears,” Thune told reporters. “I think that’s more of an excuse of convenience right now for people who don’t want to submit that type of information.”
Thune also acknowledged that the investigation would take a hit without the emails.
“I think it’s going to be very limiting in terms of what the investigation can discover about this case if you don’t get her missing emails,” he said.
Still, House GOP investigators made clear Tuesday that they would do everything in their power to retrieve Lerner’s emails, and that Koskinen should expect sharp questioning when he appears before Congress in the coming days.
The IRS told lawmakers on Friday that Lerner’s hard drive crashed in mid-2011, leaving it unable to recover archived emails. That claim drew skepticism from even nonpartisan analysts, and breathed new life into congressional investigations into the agency that had been eclipsed even in some GOP circles.
The agency also said Friday that it limits the number of emails that employees can keep in their inbox, and that it only kept six months’ worth of back-ups until May 2013.
On Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee said that Koskinen would now appear Friday to discuss the email issue, after previously being scheduled to testify on June 24.
The House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed Koskinen to appear on Monday evening.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced Tuesday that the committee had subpoenaed Lerner’s hard drive and any other device she used for email, as well as internal communications, about reproducing Lerner’s emails for congressional investigators. GOP aides to the committee said the subpoena would allow the IRS to prove that the hard drive has been destroyed.
“We still do not have answers about how and why the IRS tried to deceive Congress about these missing emails,” Issa said. “This subpoena seeks those answers.”
The House Ways and Means Committee said Tuesday that the IRS’s email problems were even more widespread than first reported, with the panel now saying the agency can’t reproduce records for six other officials.
Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), a senior committee member, added that the IRS learned about the email problems as early as February, months before they told Congress. A committee aide said the panel wanted to speak further with IRS technology personnel to discuss over what efforts the agency made to recover the emails.
“It looks like the American people were lied to and the IRS tried to cover up the fact it conveniently lost key documents in this investigation,” Camp and Boustany said in a statement.
The statements underscore how few avenues Republicans have to get information out of Lerner, whom they consider the linchpin to the IRS investigation.
Lerner has declined twice to testify before the Oversight Committee, once after Republicans ruled that she waived her rights against self-incrimination. The House has since held Lerner in contempt of Congress, but her lawyer has said he didn’t expect any court to rule that she waived her Fifth Amendment right.
Senate Democrats took a wait-and-see attitude to the new flap over the emails, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) telling reporters he would defer to Hatch and Wyden.
Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means panel, called it “unfortunate that the IRS experienced equipment failure.”
But Levin also stressed that more than 700,000 pages of documents have so far uncovered no evidence that anyone outside the IRS was involved in the scrutiny given to Tea Party groups or that the it was politically motivated.
“Every equipment failure is not a conspiracy,” Levin said.
Democratic aides also say they believe that investigators have the most important Lerner emails. The inspector general’s report that jump-started the IRS controversy said that Lerner found out about the search terms singling out Tea Party groups in June 2011, after her computer crashed.