An IRS watchdog told lawmakers Thursday the tax agency improperly destroyed backups that could have contained tens of thousands of missing Lois Lerner emails.
In addition, the IRS did not explore every place that could contain missing emails from the former employee at the center of an improper IRS targeting scandal, including backup servers and her BlackBerry, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).
All told, IRS employees improperly destroyed 422 backup tapes containing as many as 24,000 Lerner emails a month after the agency discovered some of her emails had gone missing, according to J. Russell George, the IRS watchdog.
While George emphasized he had no evidence that the improper destruction was done out of a desire to conceal information, the revelation set off a fresh round of recriminations from frustrated Republicans.
“We want to pursue the facts,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “When there’s a destruction of evidence, that goes to a whole another level.
“It just defies any sense of logic. It gets to the point where it truly gets to be unbelievable. Somebody has to be held accountable,” he added.
The potentially permanent email loss is the latest turn in the multiyear probe into how the IRS began improperly scrutinizing conservative organizations, which has come to center on Lerner, the former head of the Exempt Organizations division at the center of the controversy, who has refused to answer questions from Congress.
George’s office said earlier this month it had recovered roughly 6,400 missing emails, but said Thursday the destruction of the backup tapes likely means Congress will never see a complete record of Lerner’s emails, although George said it was “remotely possible” his team could track down additional emails.
The TIGTA will be releasing a full report on the matter next week.
Although there was an agency order to not destroy equipment given the ongoing probe, TIGTA officials said there may have been a misunderstanding by some employees, who continued to destroy backups even after it was known some of Lerner’s emails were missing.
In a response to TIGTA’s findings, the IRS said there had been a “clear breakdown of communication” within the agency regarding the need to preserve materials. The IRS added it had not yet been briefed on the watchdog’s findings, but that it plans to immediately take “corrective actions” once the report is issued next week.
The IRS also noted it had already handed over the “vast majority” of potential emails to Congress.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has told lawmakers his agency was diligently working to track down whatever missing emails it could, but George’s claims fed GOP doubts about the efficacy of the probe and fresh calls for IRS employees to be held to account, including Koskinen.
“We have heard multiple testimonies from the IRS commissioner saying ‘Oh, we’re working so hard,’” said Chaffetz. “They didn’t even look in the most obvious places.”
All told, the TIGTA identified six places where Lerner emails could be found: her hard drive, backup tapes, a decommissioned IRS server, backup tapes for that server, Lerner’s work BlackBerry and any loaner computer she may have used at the agency.
The watchdog then determined that the IRS failed to explore all those avenues in its hunt for missing emails.
In response to the latest claims, Democrats criticized the TIGTA, accusing it of offering inflated numbers in the past only to see the number of potential emails drastically pared down over time. George said his office was merely trying to give lawmakers the freshest numbers possible, emphasizing at the time many of the emails could have been duplicates or otherwise disqualified as relevant.
“Time and time again, your numbers were just wrong,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the panel.
Cummings described the probe, now stretching past two years, as having “squandered tens of millions in taxpayer dollars for a failed scavenger hunt.”
“There’s still no evidence to support Republican allegations that the White House was involved,” he added.
—This post was updated at 3:42 p.m.