The Internal Revenue Service broke the law when it failed to report Lois G. Lerner’s broken hard drive and lost emails, the national archivist told Congress on Tuesday, further fueling the email scandal.
“They are required, any agency is required, to notify us when they realize they have a problem that could be destruction or disposal, unauthorized disposal,” David S. Ferriero, head of the National Archives and Records Administration, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Amid the questions about whether the IRS made sufficient efforts to try to recover two years of emails from Ms. Lerner’s hard drive, which crashed in 2011, Mr. Ferriero’s testimony suggested that the agency’s actions may have been not just negligent but also illegal.
“They did not follow the law,” he testified.
Mr. Ferriero said the Archives did not learn of the missing emails until the IRS sent a letter this month informing Congress of the loss.
Ms. Lerner is the former IRS official at the center of a congressional probe into the targeting of conservative groups seeking preferential tax treatment. The agency also wrongly blocked approval for some of those applications, in some cases for years.
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Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, accused IRS Commissioner John Koskinen on Monday of failing to inform Congress immediately after he learned this year that some of the emails were likely lost. Mr. Issa said the agency’s behavior has only deepened suspicions that damaging emails were deliberately destroyed.
The White House on Tuesday seemingly dismissed charges that Mr. Koskinen erred by not informing Congress in April, when he first learned of the lost emails.
“What would Congress have done if they’d known about this in April or May or whenever the commissioner first learned about it?” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Congress also took testimony Tuesday from Jennifer O’Connor, a new member of the White House legal team who served as a records liaison between members of Congress and acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel for six months last year.
Ms. O’Connor said the IRS worked diligently to dig up emails related to specific search terms for the committee’s review, and then went back to dig up all of Ms. Lerner’s emails after the committee expanded its request in August.
“We did our best,” Ms. O’Connor told the panel.
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Mr. Issa was not impressed.
“The process you went through was a process that you determined that you wanted to go through,” he said.
Republicans portrayed Ms. O’Connor as a hostile witness, while Democrats wondered why she was called to testify at all.
Ms. O’Connor spent six months with the IRS and was not at the agency when it realized Ms. Lerner’s emails were missing. She has been at her White House position for one month.
Democrats said government computer crashes are common and Congress should be buttressing agency systems instead of pointing fingers and slashing budgets.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat.
Already under the microscope for asking about groups’ religious leanings and donors, the IRS is losing more credibility with its lost emails.
Ms. Lerner has cited her Fifth Amendment rights and refused to cooperate with the congressional probe, leading Republicans to hold her in contempt.
Democrats shared disgust with some of the IRS practices but reserved much of their criticism for their Republican counterparts.
“Today’s hearing is not about policy or substance,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “It’s about politics and press.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.