As of just a few days ago, it didn’t seem possible for Congressional Republicans to be any angrier with the Internal Revenue Service. Despite being aware for several months that it had lost emails to and from a number of significant figures in a congressional investigation, the agency waited until early this week to fully fess up to Congress.
But Congress reached new levels of outrage late Tuesday, when rumors began circulating that the agency might also have destroyed computer hard drives that congressional investigators want to look at.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said that if the equipment was truly destroyed, it was “proof” of the agency’s “attempted deception.”
Congress has, for the past year, been investigating whether the IRS purposefully targeted politically conservative groups seeking non-profit status. Many in the GOP suspect that the White House ordered the agency to slow-walk the applications in an effort to blunt the influence of the Tea Party in the run-up to the 2012 elections. To date, there is no evidence of White House involvement, but that hasn’t prevented Republican lawmakers form voicing their suspicions on a near-daily basis.
Last week, the IRS informed Congress that a computer hard drive belonging to Lois Lerner, the former head of the agency’s Exempt Organizations division, had crashed in 2011, destroying some two-year’ worth of email. Lerner has invoked her right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress. On Monday, the agency told lawmakers that six other computers belonging to people central to the investigation had also crashed, destroying even more email.
While the agency has been able to recover much of the lost data by copying email from the computers of other employees who also received the relevant emails, it is unable to retrieve emails that were sent exclusively to and from accounts outside the IRS, such as those belonging to White House officials.
Congress on Wednesday sent requests to the agency seeking the computer equipment in question, but that same evening, Politico reported that officials believed the machines – determined to be unsalvageable years ago – had been destroyed.
Rep. Issa was not pleased. “If the IRS truly got rid of evidence in a way that violated the Federal Records Act and ensured the FBI never got a crack at recovering files from an official claiming a Fifth amendment protection against self-incrimination, this is proof their whole line about ‘losing’ e-mails in the targeting scandal was just one more attempted deception,” he said in a statement. “Old and useless binders of information are still stored and maintained on federal agency shelves; official records, like the e-mails of a prominent official, don’t just disappear without a trace unless that was the intention.”
In a speech on the Senate Floor, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) was withering in his criticism of the agency.
“It seems, Mr. President, that there is an epidemic of hard drive crashes going on at the IRS and it seems to be particularly focused on individuals relevant to the targeting scandal and the ongoing congressional investigations,” Hatch said.
“One way or another,” he added, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this. And, I’m prepared to take any steps that are necessary to do so.”
Hatch also pointed out the incongruity of an agency that requires taxpayers to retain records for years at a time only retaining emails on its central server for six months before the backup tapes are recycled – a practice the IRS admitted to last week.
“Can you imagine that, Mr. President?” Hatch asked. “The agency that requires the American people to preserve its documents for three years only saves emails for six months.”
The IRS, which had remained silent much of the week, issued a statement on Thursday evening that avoided the allegation that it had destroyed the hard drives sought by lawmakers.
“The IRS has been expending an enormous amount of resources to produce documents related to Lois Lerner. Given the extremely broad scope of this effort, it is not surprising that we would encounter some technical issues, especially in light of our aging Information Technology infrastructure. The IRS has described in great detail, in a public report, its unprecedented efforts to produce Lerner emails.
“In addition, as part of its continuing review, the IRS in recent days identified other instances where individuals had hard-drive issues. We are still assessing whether any of this data is permanently irretrievable, so it is premature to say that a significant amount of this data was lost as a result of these issues.”
The agency did not provide an answer to a direct question about whether the equipment in question had been destroyed.
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