The head of the U.S. House of Representatives panel probing alleged bias by the Internal Revenue Service against conservative groups said former agency official Lois Lerner must have known she was required to keep paper copies of e-mails that vanished when her computer crashed.
“She knew, under the Federal Records Act, that she had an obligation for these documents to be preserved, these e-mails,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program today. “And to not have print to paper, which is the policy she had to know, is pretty hard to believe that there aren’t paper copies.”
Lerner’s missing e-mails are the latest twist in a 14-month partisan battle over what prompted the IRS to give extra scrutiny to some groups seeking tax-exempt status. Most of the groups were linked to the Tea Party movement that is seeking to rein in the federal government’s scope.
An inspector general’s report on a damaged hard drive belonging to Lerner should be complete “in a matter of weeks,” according to a letter the IRS sent to House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen wrote that the agency is working to produce as much of Lerner’s e-mail and other information as possible.
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, said his client didn’t violate any record-keeping law requiring paper copies.
“She printed out some things, not others,” Taylor said on CNN. “You can’t print out hundreds of thousands of e-mails.”
Lerner, the central figure in congressional investigations of the IRS handling of tax-exempt groups, has received death threats and has been unfairly portrayed by Republicans as “a demon they can create and point to” in an election year, Taylor said.
Lerner didn’t intentionally damage her computer and made every effort to retrieve the lost records, Taylor said.
“She walked into the office one day and her screen went blue,” Taylor said. “She asked for help in restoring it.”
There have been 2,000 computer crashes at the IRS since Jan. 1, he said.
“At the time, she did everything she could to retrieve it,” Taylor said. “That’s the story. That’s all there is to it.”
Issa said investigators will “probably never know” whether Lerner intentionally damaged her own computer.
The IRS is seeking to send the Lerner e-mails it possesses to the congressional committees with authority to view information containing taxpayer data.
According to Koskinen’s letter, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has asked the IRS to treat its investigation “as a priority and to avoid other activities around these issues until their work is concluded.”
It’s not clear from the letter what activities would be halted.
The hard drive included e-mails and other information from January 2009 through June 2011. The IRS has released e-mails showing that Lerner sought unsuccessfully to have the data recovered.
Backup tapes were recycled after six months, according to the IRS practice at the time, and the hard drive also was recycled.
Lerner, who was the IRS’s director of exempt organizations, was placed on leave last year and then retired. She has refused to testify before Congress, invoking her constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination. Republicans have voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
It was Lerner who, in a May 2013 speech in Washington, disclosed that her office had flagged applications for tax-exempt status from some Tea Party groups based solely on their names, not their activities. The groups -- and others, including some with the word “progressive” in their names -- encountered delays in the handling of their applications and were asked questions that the inspector general for the IRS deemed inappropriate.
In the immediate political uproar that followed, President Barack Obama forced the then-acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, out of his job. Since then, though, Obama has referred to continuing Republican focus on the IRS’s actions as a “phony” scandal.
Issa said the White House “is not cooperating and continues to not cooperate” with his investigation, though he said he knows of “no violation” linking any improper IRS activity to the White House.