IRS says five more staffers lost emails

Greg Nash

The IRS told lawmakers Friday that five staffers connected to the agency’s Tea Party controversy besides Lois Lerner probably lost emails due to computer problems.

Those five staffers include officials key to the various investigations into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups – including Judith Kindell, who was a senior adviser to Lerner, the former agency official at the center of the controversy.

The IRS told Congress in June that a collection of Lerner’s emails between 2009 and 2011 had gone missing because her hard drive crashed.

That acknowledgement breathed new life into congressional investigations into the IRS, and Republicans are sure to have questions about the latest round of lost emails.

In a statement, the IRS said the agency “has found no evidence that any IRS personnel deliberately destroyed any evidence,” and that each of the five staffers sought help from information technology technicians to retrieve their missing emails.

“The computer issues identified appear to be the same sorts of issues routinely experienced by employees within the IRS, in other government agencies and in the private sector,” the agency’s statement said.

“In addition, each of the five hard drive issues resulting in a probable loss of emails substantially predates the onset of the investigations in 2013.”

Of the 82 IRS staffers involved in the controversy, another 13 IRS staffers suffered computer problems without losing emails. They include Nikole Flax, who was chief of staff to Steven Miller, the interim IRS commissioner that President Obama forced out when the controversy broke. 

The IRS said it checked for computer problems between September 2009 and February 2014.

In a memo sent to Congress, the agency said that the number of staffers losing emails was roughly in line with the 5 percent to 6 percent failure rate for new computer equipment.

It also said that it had recovered roughly 14,000 emails for the five staffers, generally by cross-checking other officials’s accounts.

The agency has told lawmakers that it found around 24,000 of Lerner’s missing emails through a similar process. Lerner, who once headed an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, became the first agency official to acknowledge the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups in May 2013. She has since been held in contempt of Congress and has been referred to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Besides Kindell, the IRS said Friday that two other Washington-based staffers, Justin Lowe and Ron Shoemaker, likely lost emails as well. Julie Chen and Nancy Heagney, who handled tax-exempt applications in the agency’s Cincinnati office, round out the five staffers identified by the agency. 

The IRS has said that it only allowed staffers to keep a limited number of emails in their inbox, with the rest needing to be backed up on a hard drive. Before last year, the agency also routinely recycled tapes backing up emails after six months, leading to the loss of some staffers’ emails. 

But Republicans have repeatedly said they don’t buy that explanation, hauling the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, up to Capitol Hill multiple times this summer for testimony. GOP lawmakers have also raised concerns that the IRS wiped clean Lerner’s Blackberry in 2012, after congressional investigators began asking her about Tea Party cases.

Issa said Friday's letter showed once more that the IRS wasn't being straight with Congress, and pushed again for the Obama administration to appoint a special prosecutor.

"The so-called 'most transparent administration in history' has given Congress inconsistent information since the beginning of the targeting scandal," Issa said. "The IRS's ever-changing story is practically impossible to follow at this point, as they modify it each time to accommodate new facts."

Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration is currently investigating the missing emails, while conservative groups are suing the IRS in federal court over Lerner’s emails as well.

As Lerner’s senior adviser, Kindell was a key figure in dealing with tax-exempt applications. In a February 2011 email, Lerner insisted that Kindell be looped in on Tea Party cases, calling them “very dangerous.”

Congressional investigators have already interviewed Kindell, Lowe and Shoemaker.

Michelle Eldridge, a top spokeswoman for the IRS, and Carter Hull, who testified before the House Oversight Committee last year, were also among the 13 staffers to suffer computer problems without losing emails.

The IRS disclosed the lost emails to four committees investigating the Tea Party controversy – House Oversight, House Ways and Means, Senate Finance and the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations.

Sen. Carl LevinCarl LevinThe Fed and a return to banking simplicity What Our presidential candidates can learn from Elmo Zumwalt Will there be a 50-50 Senate next year? MORE (D-Mich.), the chairman of the investigations subcommittee, released a report Friday sharply criticizing the tax administration inspector general for releasing what he called a misleading report on the IRS’s handling of tax-exempt applications. 

In his report, Levin said that the IRS improperly treated conservative and liberal groups. But Sen. John McCainJohn McCainHigh anxiety for GOP Trump: 'Very disappointed' GOP senator dropped support GOP senator: I'd consider Clinton Supreme Court pick MORE (Ariz.), the top Republican on the generally bipartisan panel, disagreed and said the IRS gave far harsher treatment to Tea Party organizations.

Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), said Friday’s letter and memo were more of the same from the IRS. 

“Only until Congress holds the IRS’s feet to the fire does it take any action so this committee can complete its investigation into the IRS targeting of conservatives,” Swinehart said. “The IRS has lost thousands of emails, but worse yet, completely lost the American people’s trust.”

This story was updated at 5:48 p.m.