By Bernie Becker - 06/23/14 06:37 PM EDT
The House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed a White House lawyer to testify Tuesday about the IRS’s inability to recover Lois Lerner’s missing emails.
The administration declined to make Jennifer O’Connor available for testimony, prompting the subpoena from Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). On Monday evening, the White House told Issa that O'Connor would testify on Tuesday.
“I'm disappointed that one year later, the White House has attempted to block this Committee's first request for voluntary cooperation from a White House official,” Issa said in a statement.
“Before her promotion to the White House, Ms. O'Connor led the response to the Congressional targeting inquiry and she is uniquely qualified to explain why attorneys did not focus on and flag Lerner's 'lost' e-mails at the outset."
Neil Eggleston, the White House counsel, had suggested to Issa earlier on Monday that he didn’t think O’Connor’s testimony was necessary because the Oversight panel is "already receiving substantial information from the IRS" about its inability reproduce a stash of Lerner’s email between 2009 and 2011.
This isn’t the first time Issa has subpoenaed a White House official. The Oversight panel subpoenaed Todd Park, the White House’s chief technology officer, last year to testify about the problems with the HealthCare.gov website. Park testified before the committee five days after Issa issued the subpoena.
John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, is scheduled to testify before House Oversight on Monday night about the missing emails, which the agency has blamed on Lerner’s computer crashing in mid-2011.
Koskinen’s first appearance before the panel in March grew heated, with Republicans suggesting that the commissioner — like Lerner — should be held in contempt of Congress.
Lerner, who formerly headed the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, is the figure at the center of the congressional investigations. She kicked off the controversy last year by acknowledging that the IRS improperly scrutinized Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Koskinen also told the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday that Lerner’s hard drive was “recycled and destroyed” after the IRS discovered it couldn’t be restored.
Until last year, the agency also reused the digital tapes that contained back-up copies of emails after six months, leaving some technology experts to say some of Lerner’s emails might never resurface.
Koskinen blamed the lost emails in part on what he called the IRS’s antiquated information technology system, and said that agency would still hand over some 67,000 of Lerner’s emails.
But Koskinen also refused to apologize for the lost emails, in what quickly became a contentious hearing. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told Koskinen that no one believed his explanation for what happened to the emails, as the GOP accused the IRS of a cover-up. Democrats quickly rallied to Koskinen’s defense, accusing Republicans of badgering the commissioner.
In his letter to Issa on Monday, Eggleston noted that Koskinen also said that the IRS first learned there could be a problem with Lerner’s emails in February, while O’Connor left the agency in November 2013 after six months.
"It thus appears that you and others in Congress are now receiving substantial information from those at the IRS most familiar with the discovery of, and investigation into, the computer failure — and from the head of the agency himself," Eggleston wrote.
"This new information should address the questions that may have prompted your earlier hearing invitation to Ms. O'Connor, and I expect that the IRS will continue to work to comply with your subpoena for documents."
Issa has so far appeared most interested in whether the missing Lerner emails are a violation of the Federal Records Act, which sets standards for keeping official documents safe. The California Republican, in a letter sent to Koskinen over the weekend, suggested he would press the commissioner on a range of technological issues surrounding the missing emails.
The head of the National Archives, which has also expressed concerns about the IRS’s inability to reproduce all of Lerner’s emails, is scheduled to testify on Tuesday as well.
In requesting that O’Connor testify, Issa said last week that she “likely knew or should have known that the IRS was missing a portion of e-mails sent or received by Ms. Lerner."
But Democrats also believe that Issa is interested in O’Connor because she now works for the White House.
"Having failed at this effort, Chairman Issa is now trying to generate additional headlines with unsubstantiated links to the White House, apparently without fully understanding the facts about the witness he subpoenaed. These actions undermine the credibility of our Committee and our work," Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, said Monday.
Republicans have been making the case in recent months that President Obama and other top Democrats pressured the IRS into singling out Tea Party groups with their sharp criticism of so-called “dark money” groups.
Democrats say there is no evidence of political motivation, or that anyone outside the IRS was involved.