Senators: Lerner emails might have been found

A Treasury inspector general has recovered some data that might include missing emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner, the Senate’s top tax writers said Friday. 

Finance Chairman Ron WydenRon WydenRepublican chairman: Our tax reform plan fits with Trump's vision Post Orlando, hawks make a power play Democrats seize spotlight with sit-in on guns MORE (D-Ore.) and the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchMedicare trust fund running out of money fast Long past time to fix evidence-sharing across borders Overnight Tech: Facebook's Sandberg comes to Washington | Senate faces new surveillance fight | Warren enters privacy debate MORE (Utah), said that Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA) is currently working to see if it can give the recovered forensic data that might include Lerner’s emails to the committee in a readable form.

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A GOP congressional aide who has also been briefed by the inspector general's office said Friday that the watchdog had found up to 30,000 emails either to or from Lerner between 2009 and 2011.

Lerner is the central figure in the controversy surrounding the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups and the first official to apologize for the agency’s actions in May 2013. Congressional investigators have been seeking her missing emails for more than five months.

The IRS told Wyden and Hatch in June that Lerner's computer crashed in 2011, leaving them unable to reproduce an untold number of her emails during that two-year period.

The GOP aide said Friday that the inspector general said it hoped to hand the emails over to the IRS within weeks. The emails were found on back-up tapes that IRS officials had said were recycled, the staffer said.

Two of the committees investigating the IRS — Senate Finance and House Ways and Means — are allowed to look at private taxpayer information. But the IRS would have to redact certain information before other panels, like the House Oversight Committee, could examine the emails.

The up to 30,000 Lerner emails also could easily contain duplicates of what congressional investigators already have, the Republican aide added. 

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has said the agency already found 24,000 of Lerner's emails by searching the accounts of other IRS employees. The potential new emails could contain duplicates of those emails as well, the congressional aide said, like multiple copies of the same message retrieved from separate accounts.

The IRS's admission that Lerner's emails couldn't be found enraged Republicans, adding new fuel to congressional investigations that had started to lose steam. 

Koskinen also told lawmakers in June that Lerner's hard drive had been wiped clean and destroyed as part of standard agency procedure, in addition to the back-up tapes being recycled.

“As Commissioner Koskinen has stated, the IRS welcomes TIGTA’s independent review and expert forensic analysis,” said the agency in a statement late Friday. “Commissioner Koskinen has said for some time he would be pleased if additional Lois Lerner emails from this time frame could be found.”

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have been investigating the IRS controversy together since shortly after Lerner’s apology. 

Senate aides have said that the investigation was almost done when the IRS said it couldn’t find Lerner’s emails and that the Finance Committee won’t be able to finish its investigation until the Treasury inspector general is done with its inquiry into the missing emails.

“From the onset of our bipartisan investigation, we’ve remained committed to getting to the truth and ensuring that the IRS treats all tax-exempt applicants fairly,” Wyden and Hatch said in a Friday statement. 

“Since the launch of our investigation in May 2013, our investigators have interviewed more than 30 current and former IRS and Treasury employees and have reviewed nearly one million pages of documents. Though we are in the final stages of finishing our bipartisan report, TIGTA has yet to release its findings regarding the lost Lois Lerner e-mails at the IRS.”

House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in his own statement that "there may be significant information in this discovery," and chided the IRS once more for its lack of cooperation with Congress.

"The Oversight Committee will be looking for information about her mindset and who she was communicating with outside the IRS during a critical period of time when the IRS was targeting conservative groups," Issa said of Lerner.

The IRS, Issa added, "first failed to disclose the loss to Congress and then tried to declare Lerner’s e-mails gone and lost forever. Once again it appears the IRS hasn’t been straight with Congress and the American people.”

Both the Treasury Department and the White House have handed over emails between Lerner and their staff between 2009 and 2011 to congressional investigators. The White House said its search only found three emails.

Lerner’s lost emails also prompted several lawsuits of the IRS filed by conservative groups. Lerner herself has since retired from the IRS, and was held in contempt of Congress by the House earlier this year after refusing to testify before lawmakers. Republicans ruled Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination by making an opening statement at a hearing in May 2013.

Democrats say that more than 18 months of investigation have found no evidence that the White House was involved in the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups, nor any signs of political motivation from the IRS, even after the Obama administration handed over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents.

This story was last updated at 7:26 p.m.