WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating the circumstances behind the disappearance of emails from a former senior Internal Revenue Service official, part of a broader criminal inquiry into whether the agency had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, according to congressional testimony released Wednesday.
In a statement to be delivered to a congressional committee on Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole says investigators are looking into emails that went missing from the computer of Lois Lerner.
Cole was to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating the matter. He declined to provide additional information about the investigation, according to prepared remarks issued ahead of his appearance.
The IRS has said it lost the emails in 2011 when Lerner’s computer crashed. At the time, Lerner headed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status.
Lerner, who refused to answer questions at two House committee hearings, has become a central figure in several congressional investigations into the handling of applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups. At both hearings, Lerner cited her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. In May, the Republican-led House voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify.
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor III, declined to comment Wednesday.
The disclosure by the IRS that agents had improperly scrutinized tea party and other conservative groups when they applied for tax-exempt status set off a political firestorm that continues to flare in the current election year. The revelation that investigators were broadening their inquiry to include the missing emails comes as Republican members of Congress have accused the Obama administration of not cooperating with their investigation and failing to take the matter seriously enough. They have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate, which he has resisted.
“The IRS investigation was launched by the department without hesitation and immediately after Ms. Lerner publicly acknowledged the potential misconduct,” Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement. The probe remains a top priority for the department, she said.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said that he has seen no evidence anyone committed a crime when the agency lost emails. He said there was no evidence that Lerner intentionally destroyed the missing emails and that the IRS was going to great lengths trying to retrieve lost documents on Lerner’s computer, even sending it to the agency’s forensic lab.
In 2011, the IRS had a policy of backing up emails on computer tapes, but the tapes were recycled every six months, Koskinen told Congress. He said Lerner’s hard drive was recycled after technicians in the agency’s forensics lab tried unsuccessfully to restore it.
The IRS was able to generate 24,000 Lerner emails from the 2009 to 2011 period because she had copied in other IRS employees. Overall, the IRS said it is producing a total of 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, covering the period from 2009 to 2013.
Two federal judges in Washington last week ordered the IRS to explain how it lost a trove of emails to and from Lerner.