IRS halts own probe into missing Lerner emails

The IRS commissioner said Wednesday that the agency had effectively halted its own probe into former official Lois Lerner’s missing emails to allow an inspector general (IG) investigation to take precedence.

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John Koskinen, testifying before the House Oversight Committee for the third time in the last month, said Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration had asked the IRS to stop interviewing staffers, while it looks into Lerner’s 2011 hard drive crash.

That left Koskinen with little to add to his previous testimony, even as Republicans pressed him with new questions about whether tapes backing up Lerner’s emails still existed, whether agency higher-ups knew emails were missing in February and whether Lerner’s hard drive had been merely “scratched.”

“We made a commitment to the IG that we would honor his priority, that we would not do anything that would interfere with his investigation,” said Koskinen, who repeatedly insisted that he stood by his previous comments.

“He could talk to anybody he wanted, they could look at any evidence they wanted,” he continued. “And we would not have an ongoing discussion with any of the witnesses he was talking to, because we did not want to interfere.”

The IRS chief had previously said he learned there was an issue with Lerner’s emails in February, and in April that emails were lost. He said the agency disclosed the missing emails after working to recover some 24,000 of Lerner’s emails from the accounts of other IRS staffers.

On Wednesday, Koskinen said that the inspector general was examining whether any additional information could be gleaned from back-up tapes that the IRS had said were recycled.

But Republicans weren’t buying Koskinen’s testimony.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said he thought the IRS would never have disclosed Lerner’s missing emails in June if other released documents hadn’t forced the agency’s hand.

Those documents showed emails between Lerner, who headed the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, and Richard Pilger, a Justice Department lawyer, in 2010.

The IRS says Lerner’s hard drive crash left them unable to recover all of her emails from 2009-2011. Jordan said Wednesday that admission came just four days after the Oversight panel specifically asked about the 2010 emails between Pilger and Lerner.

“All I’m saying is that timing is pretty suspect,” Jordan said. “I’m not sure they were going to tell us.”

Koskinen responded that the IRS had been working much longer than four days on the report that informed lawmakers about the missing emails.

“When you find any direct evidence to support that assertion, I’d be happy to see it,” Koskinen said.

If Jordan did find such evidence, Koskinen added, “I will be not only surprised, I’ll be astounded. Because there is no such evidence.”

Koskinen’s appearance comes after both the House Oversight, and Ways and Means committees released new information about their investigations.

Congressional investigations into the IRS, begun after Lerner’s apology in May 2013 for the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, have gained new intensity since the agency acknowledged the missing emails.

Lerner, the central figure in the IRS controversy, has been held in contempt of Congress by the House and referred by Republicans to the Justice Department for potential criminal charges.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said Tuesday that an IRS technician from the agency’s criminal investigations unit said that Lerner’s “scratched” hard drive meant data was recoverable. Democrats say Republicans on the committee are twisting the technician’s words.

Earlier this week, Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said new interviews suggested that back-up tapes for Lerner’s emails might still exist, and senior aides to Koskinen knew about missing emails in February.

Armed with that information, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) suggested it was absurd that the IRS would defer to the inspector general, saying the agency wouldn’t hold off if they were investigating sexual harassment or other serious charges.

“People cite ongoing IG investigations when it suits them to not cooperate,” Gowdy said. “And they don’t cite ongoing IG investigations when it doesn’t suit them.”

Russell George, the tax administration inspector general, released the report in May 2013 that outlined the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the Oversight Committee’s top Democrat, said Wednesday’s hearing was yet another example of Issa and Republicans desperately searching for a scandal that didn’t exist. He also accused Camp and Issa of competing for headlines in their separate IRS investigations.

“This is unseemly, it's embarrassing, and it is not a proper way to run an investigation or to spend millions of dollars in taxpayer funds,” Cummings said.

In a sign of how heated the IRS investigation remains after more than a year, Issa charged that Cummings’s statement had disparaged him and asked for him to recant it. Democrats objected to that request.

— This story was updated at 5:51 p.m.