The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) commissioner denied Wednesday that his agency had an ever-shifting story when it came to former official Lois Lerner’s missing emails.
John Koskinen, the IRS chief, used his testimony to rebut statements from a conservative group that the agency had back-ups of Lerner’s emails, and sought to explain why Lerner’s BlackBerry was wiped clean just months before she started getting questioned about the agency’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
Koskinen said that Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration was examining back-up tapes, which the IRS had routinely recycled before 2013, to see if any of Lerner’s emails could be retrieved.
Lerner’s old BlackBerry, Koskinen added, was recycled to protect confidential taxpayer information. The BlackBerry, Koskinen said, would have been little help to investigators anyway, because Lerner’s email was managed elsewhere.
“I’ve tried to tell you the truth every time I’ve been here,” Koskinen told a House Oversight subcommittee on Wednesday.
Koskinen’s Wednesday appearance was at least his fourth just before the Oversight panel since the agency said in June that a computer crash left it unable to locate an untold number of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011.
Lerner, who formerly headed an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, has long been the central figure in the agency’s Tea Party controversy.
Koskinen’s appearance Wednesday was his first before Oversight since the agency said that emails from five other IRS staffers working on tax-exempt applications had likely also gone missing, and since he told a separate House panel that the IRS follows the law "whenever we can."
The IRS commissioner said the agency is going to new lengths to ensure that important records don’t go missing again. Under the new rules, IRS executives’ emails would be backed up on a secure server, not on an individual official’s hard drive.
Responding to Koskinen, both Republicans and Democrats quickly made their own familiar cases about where the IRS investigation stands.
GOP lawmakers said that Democrats have long since given up on digging into the agency’s treatment of Tea Party groups. “I would hope that the minority would quit acting as if they were ever a part of this investigation,” Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said.
Democrats, meanwhile, said Wednesday’s hearing was just the latest example of GOP overreach, with Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) decrying the Republicans’ “abusive tone” toward the IRS chief.
Republicans did use the hearing to hammer the IRS’s response to the now 16-month-old targeting controversy, and said that Koskinen’s testimony had consistently changed in the three months since the IRS revealed that Lerner’s emails were missing.
“I’m going to keep bringing him back, every time he says something that turns out not to be true,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said about the IRS chief at the end of Wednesday’s hearing.
Jordan and other Republicans noted that Koskinen had originally said in March that the IRS would hand over all of Lerner’s emails, and that the commissioner's predecessor had said that the IRS would make handing over those emails a priority.
The GOP lawmakers additionally called out statements from President Obama and other officials that appeared to put the blame for the IRS scrutiny on the Cincinnati office where tax-exempt applications were processed. All those statements, Jordan said, turned out not to be true.
And Republicans took issue with an interview Koskinen gave in July, when he questioned whether the GOP really wanted a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS because it would marginalize congressional inquiries.
“That’s the part that frosts me and, more importantly, the American people,” Jordan said. “The American people don’t think this is fun.”
Democrats, meanwhile, latched on to a recent Senate report that asserted the inspector general report outlining the IRS treatment of Tea Party groups deliberately omitted similar scrutiny given to liberal groups.
They also complained that the IRS continues to allow too many political groups to get 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, a refrain Democrats have pounded since the controversy first broke in May 2013.
In fact, both Republicans and Democrats alluded to the familiar arguments being made at Wednesday’s hearing with references to the movie "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray’s character lives the same day over and over again.
“We’re not in Washington. We’re not in Cincinnati. We’re back in Punxsutawney,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), referring to the Pennsylvania city where Groundhog Day celebrations are held.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told Koskinen that he had a similar thought when he saw the commissioner would be returning once more to the Oversight hearing room.
“My alarm clock went off this morning. I woke up. It was Groundhog Day,” Collins said. “You were back on the schedule.”