A pair of Treasury Department investigators on Thursday morning told members of the House Oversight and Investigations Committee that 422 backup tapes that might have contained emails relevant to the ongoing investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of conservative non-profits were erased eight months after the Committee requested the preservation of all possible evidence.
J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and Timothy P. Camus, TIGTA’s deputy inspector general for investigations, said in testimony before the committee that backup tapes from a decommissioned email server were likely to have held copies of emails to and from Lois Lerner, the former director of the IRS division in charge of tax-exempt organizations.
Lerner’s division, in the run-up to the 2012 elections, received a surge in applications for tax exempt status from organizations with apparent political agendas because of court rulings that loosened the rules on what kind of groups can qualify for tax-exempt status. Lerner’s division, in an effort to identify applications that required extra scrutiny, developed a set of keywords that, in large part, resulted in conservative groups being flagged for closer examination at a much higher rate.
Many such groups claimed that the delay in receiving tax-exempt status prevented them from fully engaging in issue advocacy as they had planned prior to the election. Many conservatives believe this helped President Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
A lengthy investigation into the issue determined that many of the emails to and from Lerner were unavailable because the hard drive on her computer crashed in June of 2011 and the data was not recoverable. The IRS later had to admit that its email recordkeeping system had not retained Lerner’s emails.
Investigators were able to piece together much of the email record from different sources, but have never been able to say definitively that they have everything that Lerner sent or received via the IRA system. A set of backup tapes from a decommissioned email server house in Maryland appear to have been one of the better possibilities for recovering that data, but George and Camus told Congress Thursday that the data had been erased.
“TIGTA took possession of the 424 backup tapes and determined that 422 of the 424 tapes were degaussed (i.e., magnetically erased) by IRS employees in Martinsburg (W. Va.) on or around March 4, 2014, one month after the IRS realized they were missing e-mails from Lois Lerner, and approximately eight months after the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform requested “all documents and communications sent by, received by, or copied to Lois Lerner,” the testimony found.
However, the investigators said, they did not find evidence that the tapes were erased in an effort to deliberately destroy evidence.
“The investigation uncovered testimony and e-mail traffic between IRS employees that indicate that the involved employees did not know about, comprehend, or follow the Chief Technology Officer’s May 22, 2013, e-mail directive to halt the destruction of e-mail backup media due to ‘the current environment’ and ongoing investigations.”
While the report is careful not to suggest any intentional obstruction of the investigation by IRS officials, it notes that the agency also did not do everything in its power to respond to Congress’s requests for information.
“As a result of the investigative process, TIGTA was successful in recovering over 1,000 e-mails that the IRS did not produce to the Congress, DOJ, or TIGTA,” it says. “The investigation also revealed that prior to our investigation and our efforts to recover Ms. Lerner’s missing e-mails; the IRS did not search for, review or examine the two separate sources of backup tapes, the server hard drives, or the loaner laptops that ultimately produced new, previously undisclosed e-mails.”
While unlikely to result in any new charges or accusations, the report will no doubt feed conspiracy theories that already abound in conservative circles about just what was on the emails that now appear gone for good.
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