By Bernie Becker - 06/20/14 09:58 AM EDT
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen on Friday denied that his agency is covering up Lois Lerner’s emails, at one point flatly refusing to apologize to Republicans who accused him of stonewalling their investigation.
“I don’t think an apology is owed,” Koskinen said at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The hearing quickly grew heated, with Republicans audibly gasping when Koskinen said that Lerner’s crashed hard drive — which kept her archived emails — had been “recycled and destroyed,” something the commissioner said was standard procedure.
Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) told Koskinen he found it too convenient that an unknowable number of emails from the central figure in the agency’s targeting controversy can't be found during a time span, from 2009 to 2011, that Republicans believe is crucial to their investigation.
Camp also tried to directly tie the ongoing investigation into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
“It is no wonder I have heard the word ‘cover-up’ thrown about a lot this week,” Camp said at what was Koskinen’s first public comments about the lost emails.
The IRS’s claim late last week that it couldn’t reproduce an untold number of Lerner’s emails gave a new jolt to a controversy that had receded from the public eye. Congressional investigations into the IRS heated up more than a year ago, shortly after Lerner apologized in May 2013 for the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups.
Camp angrily asked why the Treasury Department had told the White House that there had been an issue with Lerner’s emails in April, weeks before the IRS informed Congress.
Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) added that he was “damned angry,” while Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) dubbed Koskinen’s IRS the “most corrupt and deceitful” of all time.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) told Koskinen that Obama was trading on his good name and that he believed the commissioner would be out the door within a year, like some of his predecessors.
"That’s your problem — nobody believes you," Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, told Koskinen.
The commissioner said the agency went above and beyond to try to restore Lerner’s hard drive in 2011 and noted that email conversations show Lerner herself had very badly wanted her hard drive restored.
At the time, the IRS took the added step of sending Lerner’s hard drive to the forensic lab at the agency’s criminal investigations division — an “extraordinary step,” Koskinen said, that was still to no avail.
Koskinen said the IRS first figured out there was an issue with Lerner’s emails in February but didn’t know then the problem was a computer crash. He told lawmakers that the IRS didn’t tell Congress immediately because it wanted to further investigate and give them a full report.
“There’s been no attempt to keep it secret,” he said.
Democrats struck back at Camp and his fellow Republicans, accusing the of badgering Koskinen as the chairman asked whether a special prosecutor was required to investigate the IRS and on a range of other issues.
"This is less a hearing than an inquisition," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the No. 4 Democrat in the House.
Several Democrats made a point to go back to questions that they said Koskinen had not been allowed to answer, due to repeated Republican interruptions.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) mocked the GOP inquiry by asking Koskinen whether the commissioner or Lerner had anything to do with the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, or covering up aliens at Area 51.
“The only thing it’s missing is Oliver Stone,” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said about what he called GOP “conspiracy theories.”
Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the panel’s top Democrat, noted that Republicans have pushed to cut the IRS’s budget year after year, which he says has left the agency’s “email system entirely underfunded and wholly deficient.”
Levin added that the George W. Bush administration lost almost 5 million emails dealing with the firings of U.S. attorneys, and accused Republicans of desperately searching for signs of political motivation or White House involvement.
The White House said this week that it found no direct emails between Lerner and their officials between 2009 and May 2011. On three occasions, somebody else emailed Lerner and a White House staffer; two of those times, the person emailing was seeking tax assistance, and the third was spam.
Until last year, the IRS says that it recycled the digital tapes that stored back-up copies of emails after six months.
Without those tapes or the hard drive, computer experts say it would be difficult to recover Lerner’s emails from 2009 to when her computer crashed more than two years later.
The IRS told lawmakers last week that it was able to reproduce 24,000 of Lerner’s emails from that time period through other employee accounts.
The agency and Democrats also note that the agency has already turned over more than 750,000 documents to congressional investigators.
Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee say the agency’s email issues go far beyond Lerner, and the IRS is having problems handing over documents from six other IRS staffers — including the chief of staff to the acting commissioner.
Koskinen said that it doesn't appear that any of the emails from the chief of staff, Nikole Flax, have been lost, because it was the not the hard drive on Flax’s main office computer that had crashed.
Under fire from Republicans, he also accused GOP lawmakers of rushing to judgment on the IRS, releasing information on Flax’s emails before it was verified. Koskinen, confirmed by the Senate just last December, also told the panel that he planned on serving out his entire term.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is also investigating the IRS and has further questions about the IRS’s records-keeping practices.
This story was updated at 2:17 p.m.