The Justice Department is looking into former IRS employee Lois G. Lerner’s lost emails and why it took her agency so long to report the missing messages to Congress and other federal authorities, Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the House on Thursday.
Mr. Cole also assured Congress that his department didn’t conspire with the IRS to try to target tea party groups, challenging Republican assertions, and he said the FBI didn’t even know it had been given private taxpayer information by the tax agency until years afterward.
Republicans in Congress have said they were troubled by the release of the information to the federal government’s chief law enforcement agency, but Mr. Cole said the FBI never used or even reviewed the substance of the information. He said they didn’t even know private taxpayer information was on the set of 21 disks turned over by the IRS until Congress obtained copies and discovered the private data.
But Mr. Cole couldn’t say why the IRS turned the information over to the FBI in the first place — a statement that stunned Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House oversight committee panel looking into the matter.
“The Justice Department asked for information you said was publicly available, but you went to Lois Lerner to get it,” Mr. Jordan said.
Mr. Cole replied that he didn’t necessarily see nefarious connections there.
Immediately after the IRS’s targeting of conservative and tea party groups was revealed in May 2013, the Justice Department announced a criminal investigation.
Since then, however, Republicans have challenged the probe, accusing one of the Justice Department lawyers of having political connections to Mr. Obama and wondering why conservative groups targeted by the IRS hadn’t been interviewed.
Mr. Cole said the Justice Department’s investigation into the IRS is ongoing, and pulled back the curtain slightly, saying they are looking into emails lost from Ms. Lerner’s computer, which the IRS has blamed on a hard drive crash.
But Mr. Cole said he wouldn’t give any more details about the investigation, and denied GOP charges that it appears to be stalled.
His testimony seemed to contradict President Obama, who told Fox News earlier this year that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” evident in the IRS’s targeting.
Mr. Cole appeared to suggest Mr. Obama wasn’t speaking from the facts when he distanced his department from any prejudgment.
“The Justice Department doesn’t talk about the investigation,” he said. “We’re the ones who know what the facts are.”
He also said Mr. Obama’s words didn’t taint the investigation.
For their part, Democrats questioned the House GOP’s continued focus on the issue, and said there has been no evidence to connect Mr. Obama and his top political aides to the IRS’s behavior.
“This is not the basis of a White House scandal. This is the latest example of Republicans desperately searching for one, and then using any excuse they can to manipulate the facts until they no longer have any resemblance to the truth,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.