IRS: Lerner emails may exist after all

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The IRS might not have lost the backups of former agency administrator Lois Lerner’s emails after all, according to a top IRS official.

In testimony released Monday, Thomas Kane, the IRS’s deputy associate chief counsel, told House Oversight investigators last week that the agency was examining whether all the backup tapes which held the emails have been recycled.

The IRS told lawmakers in June that the tapes had been recycled, one of the reasons that an untold number of Lerner’s emails were missing. Since then, the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, has repeatedly stood by those statements in congressional testimony.

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But Kane, the top IRS official in charge of producing documents for Congress, said on Thursday that: “I don’t know if there is a backup tape with information on it or there isn’t. I know that there’s an issue out there about it.” 

“It’s an issue that’s being looked at,” Kane also said.

A partial transcript of Kane’s interview was released Monday by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), one of the leading Republicans investigating the IRS.

In the transcript released by Issa, Kane also insists that the IRS believed that the tapes had been recycled when it told Congress more than a month ago that it couldn’t recover all of Lerner’s emails. He didn’t say why that might not be the case anymore.

The IRS had also chalked up the lost emails to Lerner’s hard drive crashing in 2011, a statement that breathed new life into an investigation that had been put on the back burner even by Republicans in the preceding months.

Lerner, who apologized for the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status in May 2013, has become the central figure of the investigation.

The House has already held her in contempt of Congress, with the Ways and Means Committee also referring her to the Justice Department for criminal charges.

On Monday, Issa said Kane’s answers raised new questions about the IRS’s handling of the investigation, especially given that he had to subpoena Kane for the interview.

“Finding out that IRS Commissioner Koskinen jumped the gun in reporting to Congress that the IRS ‘confirmed’ all backup tapes had been destroyed makes me even more suspicious of why he waited months to inform Congress about lost Lois Lerner emails,” Issa said in a statement. 

“Commissioner Koskinen has repeatedly blamed the reporting delay on an effort to be sure what he said was correct,” Issa said. “We now know that wasn’t the case.”

Koskinen is scheduled to appear before the Oversight panel to discuss the investigation on Wednesday, marking his third appearance before the committee in a month.

The IRS has said that it limits the number of emails that staffers can keep in their inboxes, another factor in Lerner’s missing emails. Since the controversy broke in May 2013, the agency has stopped recycling backup tapes. 

The commissioner has already told lawmakers that he first knew there was a problem with Lerner’s emails in February, and that he knew emails were missing by April. He said the IRS decided to wait to tell lawmakers until after they tried to recover emails through the accounts of other staffers, a process which collected some 24,000 emails.

In court filings Friday, the IRS said under oath that Lerner’s hard drive had been destroyed and recycled, echoing Koskinen’s testimony over the last month.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the Oversight panel’s top Democrat, blasted Issa on Monday for hauling Koskinen back for a third time in short order.

Cummings said that the committee’s time would be better served probing close to a dozen other policy areas, including climate change, the Target security breach and foreclosure abuse.

“This public harassment of an agency head is not only an abuse of authority, but a dereliction of the Committee's obligation to conduct responsible oversight on a host of other critical issues within our jurisdiction,” Cummings said in a Monday letter to Issa.