The IRS erased backup takes with Lois G. Lerner’s emails even after the messages were subject to a congressional subpoena, but it was an “unbelievable” chain of coincidences rather than a malicious intent to subvert Congress, the tax agency’s inspector general said Thursday.
As many as 24,000 emails may have been permanently lost, but the inspector general has managed to recover about 1,000 messages from the tapes because the IRS only “degaussed” the tapes but didn’t destroy them.
Still, the move to erase the tapes after they had been requested by Congress didn’t sit well with Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who accused IRS chief John Koskinen of obstructing Congress’ investigation into the emails and tea party targeting.
“They destroyed evidence. That’s what they did,” Mr. Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said.
He wondered whether it was a “coincidence” the erasure came just a month after President Obama dismissed the tea party-targeting scandal as a nonissue.
Democrats said the erasures weren’t an intentional effort to hide the information from Congress or the inspector general, and the investigators who recovered the tapes agreed.
“There was nobody who did anything intentionally to hinder our investigation,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
The IRS, in an unsigned statement, admitted to “a clear breakdown” in its procedures that allowed the backup tapes to be erased, but took heart in the inspector general’s finding that it wasn’t intentional.
“The IRS has consistently and fully cooperated with the investigation of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration,” the agency said. “Protecting email, backup tapes and information related to the investigation has been important to the IRS, and this priority was communicated to all affected IRS functions beginning in May 2013. This guidance has been repeated on numerous occasions since that time.”
Ms. Lerner, the former head of the IRS agency that targeted tea party and conservative groups for intrusive scrutiny, has been the center of a two-year congressional investigation. Last year the IRS belatedly informed Congress that it didn’t have all of her email messages because she’d suffered a computer hard drive crash, causing them to be irretrievably lost.
Mr. Koskinen assured Congress he had taken steps to try to recover the messages but it was impossible.
The inspector general’s office, however, said it found backup computer tapes and was able to reconstitute messages from those. Investigators said when they went to obtain the backup tapes, the IRS employees said nobody had ever asked for them.
At one point in 2014, even after the emails had been under subpoena from the oversight committee, IRS employees erased 424 backup tapes that included Lerner emails, Deputy Inspector General Timothy P. Camus testified.
He said that they weren’t fully destroyed but rather degaussed, which is a way of magnetically scrambling digital information.
Mr. Camus said his investigation determined that the IRS didn’t intentionally try to hide information, but said instead it was “an unbelievable set of circumstances” that will be detailed in a report to be released soon — though blame appears to lie with low-level employees at a storage facility in West Virginia.
All told, the inspector general has recovered about 1,000 emails that the IRS never turned over to Congress, but there are as many as 24,000 other emails that are missing and likely lost for good. None of the recovered emails sheds light on the targeting, the inspector general said.
Democrats said the 24,000 potential emails are far fewer than the 80,000 the inspector general had initially said might be involved, and said even that number could shrink.
They said that impugns the inspector general himself, J. Russell George, who Democrats said has repeatedly changed the number of emails that could be recovered.
“When you keep changing your story the way you have, you lose credibility,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright, Pennsylvania Democrat, who accused Mr. George of going after headlines rather than the truth.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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