When her computer crashed in July of 2011, Lois Lerner, then the head of the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations division, told information technology staff that “there were some documents in the files that are irreplaceable” and worried that her machine had been sent off to “the hard drive cemetery” before technical experts could try to recover the data.
Now, with the IRS reporting that not just one, but seven people central to congressional investigations experienced computer crashes that destroyed potentially important emails, lawmakers are telling the IRS to find that graveyard, and dig it up.
Lerner is the primary target in multiple investigations into whether the IRS purposefully slowed down the processing of politically conservative groups’ requests for non-profit status in the years prior to the 2012 election. Last week, more than a year into the investigation, the agency revealed to Congress that because of her computer problems, emails to and from Lerner between 2009 and the time of the crash in July 2011 were unrecoverable.
Following the additional revelation Monday that six more IRS employees’ computers had also crashed and destroyed data, Republican members of Congress sent a letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen demanding information about how the agency handled the hard drives.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany Jr., M.D. (R-LA) said, “It is a little too convenient that right in middle of Lerner orchestrating the targeting of conservative groups, poof, her emails disappear. It is even harder to believe that six other IRS employees…also had their systems go down and supposedly permanently deleted critical details that could help us prove what was really happening at the IRS. We need to know where these computers are, who looked at them and when.”
They Ways and Means Committee isn’t the only House panel interested in the status of the IRS’s old computer equipment.
Late Tuesday Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Investigations issued a subpoena to Koskinen requiring him to testify before the committee and demanding a long list of material from the agency including “All back-up tapes, external drives, thumb drives, or other storage media the IRS used to capture, archive, back up, or otherwise record e-mails sent or received by Lois Lerner from January 1, 2009, to September 23, 2013.”
Issa said in a statement that he felt blindsided by the agency’s revelations. “When Commissioner Koskinen testified before the Committee in February, he made no mention of this. It was only earlier this month, during an interview with a Justice Department official, that the Oversight Committee learned about the existence of subpoenaed 2010 Lerner e-mails that the IRS had not produced. While this apparently forced the IRS to cough up an admission, we still do not have answers about how and why the IRS tried to deceive Congress about these missing e-mails. This subpoena seeks those answers.”
Whether the IRS has retained hard drives that its technicians, several years ago, determined were broken is an open question. The agency has failed to respond to multiple requests for comment for this and previous stories related to the lost data.
To her credit, emails indicate that Lerner and her subordinates went to considerable lengths to retrieve the data on her computer, going so far as to send it to the agency’s Criminal Division, which has a computer forensics lab.
The process lasted several weeks, and after the technicians informed her that the data was indeed lost, Lerner sent a note to the IT executive who had helped her.
“Thanks for trying. I really do appreciate the effort,” she wrote. “Sometimes stuff just happens.”
Critics of Lerner and the IRS have frequently quoted that final sentence with no context, suggesting incorrectly that Lerner was casually unconcerned about the loss of the data.
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