Congress probes how IRS emails could go missing

WASHINGTON – Eight federal employees connected to the tea party investigation experienced hard drive crashes, resulting in an unknown number of lost emails, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen told lawmakers today in an unusually tense congressional hearing.

A week ago the IRS acknowledged it could not produce some of the emails of the IRS executive at the center of the probe because her computer crashed in 2011. Koskinen acknowledged to lawmakers that the hard drive was recycled and presumably destroyed.

“I want that hard drive and I want the hard drive of every computer that crashed,” said the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

Koskinen said the IRS took extra measures to try to retrieve the lost emails. But he was unapologetic about the computer crashes or the period when the IRS advised Congress that emails it had sought were lost.

“I don’t think an apology is owed,” Koskinen said.

Koskinen says it’s not clear whether all eight of the hard drive crashes resulted in lost emails.

Koskinen also said appointment of a special federal prosecutor to investigate the IRS handling of tax-exempt applications would be a “monumental waste of taxpayer funds.”

The congressional investigation has been highly politicized because of allegations that the IRS improperly singled out tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status. Friday’s hearing was unusually tense, as Camp and other Republicans occasionally interrupted Koskinen and continued to ask other questions before Koskinen had an opportunity to answer.

The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sander Levin of Mich., chided his colleagues that, “Witnesses deserve some respect.”

An FBI investigation is ongoing.

The former IRS official at the center of the investigation, Lois Lerner, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers’ questions. Lerner did not learn that IRS staffers were improperly reviewing applications of tea party and other conservative groups for tax-exempt status until weeks after her computer crashed, according to an earlier audit by the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

Lerner’s computer crashed sometime around June 13, 2011, according to emails provided to Congress. She first learned about the tea party reviews on June 29, according to the inspector general.

Koskinen told Congress that Lerner’s hard drive was unavailable to them because it had been recycled.

The IRS said last week it became aware of the missing emails in February of this year. The IRS did not know whether the other computer crashes have resulted in lost emails as well. It will also not say how often its computers fail and lose data.

The lost emails are raising questions even by the government’s records officer. In a June 17 letter to the IRS, Paul Wester Jr. asked the agency to investigate the loss of records and whether any disposal of data was authorized. Wester, the chief records officer at the National Archives and Records Administration, was responding to the IRS’ June 13 disclosure of Lerner’s lost emails.