Lerner: IRS needed 'to be cautious' about emails

Former IRS official Lois Lerner warned her colleagues “to be cautious” about what they wrote in emails because of potential interest from lawmakers, according to new documents released by Republicans.

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Lerner, the central figure in the Internal Revenue Service's Tea Party controversy, also wondered in the emails released by the House Oversight Committee about whether the agency kept copies of internal instant messaging conversations. 

Republicans said that those emails raised even more questions about the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups, especially because they were sent less than two weeks after a Treasury inspector general gave the IRS a copy of its report on the improper scrutiny.

“We know Ms. Lerner’s not being square with the American people,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said at an Oversight subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The emails released Wednesday mark just the latest escalation of the congressional investigations into the IRS, which have intensified since the agency acknowledged that some of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to the middle of 2011 are missing.

The IRS has said that Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011 and has since been destroyed, but that the agency was still able to retrieve roughly 24,000 of her emails. Democrats have said that investigations stretching more than a year — since shortly after Lerner apologized for the IRS’s singling out of Tea Party groups — have found no signs of political motivation or White House involvement.

In the April 2013 email, which the Oversight panel said it received last week, Lerner said she had been “cautioning folks about email and how we have had several occasions where Congress has asked for emails.”

“So we need to be cautious about what we say in emails,” she added.

In that same email, Lerner asked whether an internal IRS messaging system “was searchable.”

An IRS technology official responded that staffers would have to save an instant messaging conversation for it to be found in a search, but that IRS workers should generally assume that the chats would be saved.

“Perfect,” Lerner responded.

The emails were released the same day that the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, testified for the first time before the Oversight Committee since he appeared last month to discuss Lerner’s missing emails.

Like his previous appearances, Koskinen’s back-and-forth with Republicans grew testy on Wednesday.

Jordan repeatedly pressed Koskinen over why these emails were only released this month, and blasted the commissioner for offering “flippant” answers to his questions.

The Ohio Republican also said that Rep. Gerry Connolly’s (D-Va.) suggestion that Lerner’s response of “perfect” was to the recommendation that IRS staffers act as if the instant messages were saved defied common sense.

Koskinen, meanwhile, chided Jordan for suggesting that Lerner had lost her own emails on purpose, and pushed back on the notion that he was being flippant. Connolly followed that up by accusing Jordan of badgering the commissioner.

“I’ve tried to be responsive,” said Koskinen, who also insisted that he didn’t know about the agency’s internal messaging system referred to by Lerner, known as OCS. “I understand these are important matters.”

During the hearing, Koskinen declined to revise his testimony from last month, which has been challenged by Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Issa has pointed to the missing Lerner emails as a sign that the IRS violated the Federal Records Act, which seeks to ensure the safekeeping of official documents.

Koskinen told the Oversight panel in June that the agency had handed over emails that Lerner had printed out, in keeping with the IRS’s policy on handling official records.

But Issa said that didn’t square with comments from Lerner’s own lawyer, Bill Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder. Taylor had told Politico that Lerner didn’t know that she was supposed to print out official records, though he later told CNN that Lerner did print out some emails.

Pressed by Republicans on Wednesday, Koskinen told the Oversight panel on Wednesday that “I have not suggested any change” to his earlier testimony.

In advance of that hearing, Taylor chalked up his statement that Lerner hadn’t printed out emails to a misunderstanding, and accused Issa of concentrating on the Federal Records Act “because the initial investigation has demonstrated no wrongdoing.”

“The facts are that Ms. Lerner did not destroy any records subject to the Federal Records Act, she did not cause the computer assigned to her to fail, and she made every effort to recover the files on the computer,” Taylor said.

—This story was updated at 7:03 p.m.