By Bernie Becker - 06/23/14 08:53 PM EDT
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen denied Monday that he had misled Congress by maintaining that his agency would turn over all of Lois Lerner’s emails.
The agency told Congress this month that a stash of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011 couldn’t be reproduced, because of a computer crash. Koskinen had told House Oversight in March, in yet another contentious appearance, that the agency would provide all of Lerner’s emails.
But under tense questioning from Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Koskinen stressed that “I never said I’d provide you emails that we didn’t have,” and insisted there was nothing he could do to recover what could be thousands of lost Lerner emails.
"If you have a magical way for me to do that, I'd be happy to know about it," Koskinen said.
The House Oversight hearing marked the latest escalation in the war of words between Koskinen and House Republicans, in an investigation into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups that gained fresh intensity with the loss of Lerner’s emails.
On Monday, Issa told Koskinen that he was “sick and tired of your game-playing in response to congressional oversight,” and – like House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) before him – suggested that the public didn’t believe the commissioner’s explanation for what happened to Lerner’s emails.
“Did you hope that you could run out the clock on this scandal?” Issa asked in his opening statement, before directly telling Koskinen: “We have a problem with you, and you have a problem with maintaining your credibility.”
The California Republican has taken a particular interest in whether the IRS violated the Federal Records Act, which requires the safekeeping of official documents. The head of the National Archives, which has expressed similar concerns, is scheduled to testify before House Oversight on Tuesday.
Democrats on the Oversight panel apologized for Koskinen’s treatment from Republicans, saying that the GOP was essentially accusing the commissioner of perjury. On Friday, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee sounded similar notes in Koskinen’s first appearance to discuss what happened to Lerner’s emails.
“The stage is set. This is about theater,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, before accusing the GOP of trafficking in a conspiracy theory that “fires up the base of the other party and plays well on right-wing media outlets.”
“At the expense, of course, of the truth,” Connolly said.
At one point even, Issa cautioned Democrats against questioning the motives of Republicans on the panel – drawing quick rebukes from both Democrats, and the commissioner himself. “But it’s fair game to question the integrity of the witness?” Koskinen asked.
Either way, Monday’s hearing also showed that the congressional investigations into the IRS are unlikely to die down in the coming weeks.
Koskinen told the Oversight panel on Monday that he only learned that some of Lerner’s emails were lost in April, after his first appearance before the committee. The commissioner has said that he was told there was an issue with Lerner’s emails in February.
He also said that Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration was examining the loss of Lerner’s email, a statement confirmed by the inspector general’s spokeswoman. And Koskinen noted that more than 2,000 agency staffers had suffered hard drive crashes just this year, as he tried to drive home his point that the IRS's dated technology equipment had played a role in the email flap.
The Treasury inspector general helped jumpstart the controversy in May 2013 by outlining the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups. Days before that report was released, Lerner, by now the central figure in the controversy, acknowledged and apologized for the agency’s actions.
Lerner has since retired from the IRS, and been held in contempt of Congress by the House, after the Oversight Committee ruled that she waived her Fifth Amendment rights by proclaiming her innocence in a May 2013 appearance.
The IRS says that Lerner and agency staffers made a concerted effort to restore her hard drive in 2011, with the drive even being sent to the forensic lab at the agency’s criminal investigations division. Koskinen said Friday that the hard drive was "recycled and destroyed in the normal process" after experts determined that no emails could be retrieved from it.
Until last year, the agency also only backed up emails for six months, and IRS staffers also have limits on the amount of emails that can be kept in their inboxes. Still, the agency said it was able to reproduce 24,000 of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011 by using the accounts of other staffers.
Issa also announced Monday that he had subpoenaed Jennifer O’Connor, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, to testify about Lerner’s emails. O’Connor worked at the IRS for six months in 2013, starting shortly after the controversy broke.