The IRS’s inspector general has told Congress that it may have discovered as many as 30,000 of the lost Lois G. Lerner emails, despite repeated IRS insistence both in testimony to both Capitol Hill and federal courts that they were beyond recovery, congressional committees said Friday.
Investigators are now trying to figure out whether they can get the data in a readable format — a process that could take weeks, according to a congressional aide.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) discovered the potential emails among 744 disaster recovery tapes that backup IRS systems, and found up to 30,000 Lerner emails from 2009 to 2011, which covers the period of emails she reported lost in a computer hard drive crash.
The revelation raised a host of questions about the IRS’s claims that the emails had been irretrievably lost — assertions the agency and its new chief, John Koskinen, had made both while testifying under oath to Congress and in court papers defending against lawsuits from several of the conservative groups who had been denied approval for nonprofit status.
Ms. Lerner ran the IRS division that improperly blocked and intrusively scrutinized conservative groups’ applications for nonprofit status. She retired from the agency last year, but remains a central figure in the investigation into the agency’s behavior.
Tens of thousands of emails she sent or received have been turned over, but the IRS said a computer crash caused the loss of potentially tens of thousands of other messages. The agency tried to recover some of those by asking employees to search their mailboxes for messages they may have sent to or received from Ms. Lerner, but investigators criticized the agency for not doing more to recover Ms. Lerner’s computer hard drive.
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The emails are being sought by the Senate Finance Committee, the House Oversight Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
“Though it is unclear whether TIGTA has found all of the missing Lois Lerner emails, there may be significant information in this discovery,” said Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, California Republican.
He said his panel wants to see the emails in order to ascertain Ms. Lerner’s mindset and see who she was speaking with outside the IRS as the agency was holding up conservative groups’ applications.
Mr. Issa also said the revelation signals that the IRS again failed to give a complete story to Congress. The agency waited months before telling Congress it had lost the Lerner emails, and later said it had no way to recover them.
Senate Finance Committee leaders said in a joint statement they are in the “final stages” of their investigation, but said it’s unlikely they will finish until next year, when the GOP takes control of the committee and will have a bigger say in the final report.
“From the onset of our bipartisan investigation, we’ve remained committed to getting to the truth and ensuring that the IRS treats all tax-exempt applicants fairly,” said Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and ranking Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
The IRS earlier this year, after prompting by Congress, reported to the National Archives that information required to be stored as official records may have been lost in the computer crash. That notification came years after the crash.
In a statement released late Friday the IRS did not explain why it didn’t try to recover the information from the tapes it had.
Instead it pointed to the 24,000 emails it had already tracked down from the 2009-2011 period. And the agency said it had “cooperated fully” with the inspector general by providing the disaster recovery tapes that investigators now believe have the emails.
“Commissioner Koskinen has said for some time he would be pleased if additional Lois Lerner emails from this time frame could be found,” the IRS said in its unsigned statement.