A conservative group suing the IRS said Monday that the Obama administration has acknowledged that former agency official Lois Lerner’s emails are recoverable.
The government lawyers added that the problem was not that the emails couldn’t be found, but that the back-up system was too onerous to search, Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president, said Monday.
“This is a jaw-dropping revelation. The Obama administration had been lying to the American people about Lois Lerner’s missing emails,” Fitton said in a statement, adding that the group would bring the government’s statements up with Judge Emmet Sullivan, who is presiding over the group’s lawsuit.
But an administration official with knowledge of Friday’s conversation said Judicial Watch’s statement, which runs counter to months of statements from a variety of administration and IRS higher-ups, was off-base.
The administration official said Justice Department lawyers had dropped no bombshells last week, and Judicial Watch was mischaracterizing what the government had said.
The official said DOJ lawyers were only referring to tapes backing up IRS emails that were routinely recycled twice a year before 2013, when the investigation into the Tea Party controversy began.
The IRS has acknowledged those procedures were in place since it told lawmakers in June that Lerner’s computer crashed in 2011, leaving the agency unable to recover many of her emails over a two-year span.
John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has testified before Congress several times over the last two months that the tapes backing up Lerner’s emails were recycled.
“There is no newly divulged back-up system that was not previously known about,” the official said. “Government lawyers were simply referring to the back-up system at the IRS that Commissioner Koskinen had already disclosed.”
Lerner has been a central figure in the IRS investigation since May 2013, when she became the first agency official to acknowledge and apologize for the improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
She has since retired from the IRS, been found in contempt of Congress by the House and been referred to the Justice Department for potential criminal charges.
Judicial Watch’s Monday statement noted that Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, which outlined the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups, is investigating the back-up system for emails.
The administration official said that the inspector general is examining whether any data can be recovered from the previously recycled back-up tapes and suggested that could be the cause of the confusion between the government and Judicial Watch.
GOP lawmakers and conservative groups have for months said they don’t believe Lerner’s emails can’t be found, and the recovery of those documents would be a major victory for groups like Judicial Watch.
“All the focus on missing hard drives has been a diversion. The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be — but dishonestly withheld this information,” Fitton said. “You can bet we are going to ask the court for immediate assistance in cutting through this massive obstruction of justice.”
Sullivan has asked the IRS to detail its efforts in recovering Lerner’s lost emails, including whether it tried to obtain data from her BlackBerry. IRS officials have said in filings they do not believe Lerner’s BlackBerry was checked for data, because any emails should have also been stored in her Microsoft Outlook files.
Koskinen and other senior IRS officials have also repeatedly said Lerner's hard drive was wiped clean and recycled after technicians were unable to recover any data, to protect confidential taxpayer information.