Republicans ridiculed a claim that the Internal Revenue Service lost two years worth of Lois G. Lerner’s emails, with top lawmakers Monday summoning the commissioner to Congress next week to explain the foul-up and one tea party group demanding access to the computers that the tax agency says were responsible for the failure.
Congressional investigators, meanwhile, began interviewing IRS technical staff to try to get to the bottom of why an apparent hard-drive crash erased Ms. Lerner’s emails from 2009 through 2011.
The House Ways and Means Committee demanded that President Obama get personally involved by ordering the rest of his administration to search their emails for any communications with Ms. Lerner that may have been erased from the IRS but remain on other government servers.
“We are simply not going to accept the IRS claim that these documents are not recoverable,” Rep. Dave Camp, Texas Republican, and Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican, said in a letter to Mr. Obama. “We will demand the President live up to his promise to work ‘hand in hand’ with Congress to get the facts. He can do so by quickly ordering his White House and key agencies to immediately conduct an exhaustive search for all Lois Lerner emails. There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by an independent special investigator.”
The White House dismissed the questions as “far-fetched” and “conspiracies.”
The IRS officially alerted Congress last week, a year into the investigation, that some of Ms. Lerner’s emails were irretrievably lost after her computer hard drive crashed, causing her to lose documents from 2009 through 2011.
In one later email to the IRS tech staff, Ms. Lerner called the documents lost in the crash “irreplaceable” — further piquing congressional interest in the emails.
Ms. Lerner retired from the IRS in September under pressure, and the agency has been trying to put together her emails from her records. It says it has 67,000 total emails, including 24,000 from the period in question that were gathered from other agency employees who were included on those messages.
But that would not cover emails between her and Congress or federal agencies where no other IRS employee was included, which is why Mr. Camp and Mr. Boustany asked the White House to get involved.
Speaking to reporters traveling with Mr. Obama aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Josh Earnest disputed the notion that the administration is hiding emails.
“You’ve never heard of a computer crashing before?” he said.
He said the 67,000 messages already gathered, most of which have been turned over to Congress, are proof that there is no conspiracy to block the investigation.
“There is ample evidence to indicate that a good-faith effort has been made by the IRS to cooperate with congressional oversight. And the far-fetched skepticism expressed by some Republican members of Congress, I think, is not at all surprising and not particularly believable,” he said.
Open-records laws lay out a number of requirements for federal agencies that are supposed to preserve official records, but the number of email, text messages and other electronic communications has outpaced paper records that were covered under the old rules.
Federal employees are supposed to print and store any emails that could constitute official records under federal law. It’s not clear whether Ms. Lerner did that with her emails, and the IRS did not respond to a request for comment Monday on that matter.
One lawyer who has tangled with a number of federal agencies over official records said the hard-drive crash should have triggered a notification to the National Archives, which is responsible for preserving government records. The Competitive Enterprise Institute sent a request to the Archives on Monday asking whether it had been notified.
More than a year after the IRS targeting scandal was revealed, there has been no evidence of direct political involvement in the agency’s activities, though there are plenty of signs that Ms. Lerner and her colleagues were aware of the desire on the part of Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats to crack down on tea party and other groups that formed as tax-exempt organizations and were trying to play roles in politics.
In a report Monday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee detailed many of the Democrats’ public statements and said the IRS considered those statements to be marching orders.
“Using his bully pulpit, the president spoke. He declared repeatedly that these conservative groups ‘posing’ as nonprofits with ‘benign-sounding’ names were ‘a threat to our democracy.’ The IRS listened and, in turn, it subjected these groups to systematic scrutiny and delay,” said the report, issued by committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican.
Mr. Issa has issued a subpoena for IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to testify next week to the oversight committee.
Mr. Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he has an agreement from the commissioner to testify. He said the committee will ask Mr. Koskinen whether the IRS broke rules by failing to preserve Ms. Lerner’s emails and what efforts were made to recover the documents.
The IRS, in a detailed explanation sent to Congress on Friday, explained the hard-drive crash.
The agency said employees such as Ms. Lerner have some “active” emails stored on the IRS centralized network. The rest the agency can save in its email archive on the hard drive, but those documents are lost if the hard drive crashes.
The agency said it’s technically possible to have a system that would save all agency emails, but that upgrade would cost $10 million.
In an exchange with Ms. Lerner in 2011, two years before the emails became the subject of controversy, an IRS information technology staffer said a number of steps were taken in an attempt to recover the data, but were unsuccessful.
“Unfortunately the news is not good,” Lillie Wilburn wrote in an Aug. 5, 2011, email. “The sectors on the hard drive were bad which made your data unrecoverable. I am very sorry. Everyone involved tried their best.”
Ms. Lerner replied: “I really do appreciate the effort. Sometimes stuff just happens.”