On Friday night, the Associated Press revealed that the Internal Revenue Service has lost an untold number of emails sent to and from a key figure, Lois Lerner, in the long-simmering scandal over the agency’s treatment of groups affiliated with the conservative Tea Party movement.
The news broke at the end of a week in which Russia sent tanks into Ukraine, escalating a crisis the Obama administration has sought to contain; Iraq continued plummeting toward chaos, as the Iraqi Army, trained and equipped by the U.S. at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, collapsed like a cheap tent under attacks from Islamic militants; and the terrorist organization Hamas called for yet another intifada against Israel, complicating the administration’s efforts to bring peace to that region.
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Oh, and the Veterans Administration health care scandal continued to simmer.
A major public opinion survey found that political polarization in the U.S. is as bad as it has been in living memory and appears to be getting worse. So, you might have thought things couldn’t possibly get worse for the Obama administration. But, of course, you’d have been wrong.
Several congressional committees as well as the Justice Department and the IRS Inspector General are looking into allegations that the IRS purposefully delayed applications for tax exempt status coming from groups that appeared to be politically conservative. (Evidence has arisen indicating that a few liberal groups were also targeted, suggesting that the agency might have been targeting all politically active groups for special scrutiny.)
Congressional investigators have focused specifically on Lois Lerner, the director of the agency’s Exempt Organizations Division, who has invoked her right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee. The House of Representatives last month voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress.
As part of the investigation, members of Congress demanded Lerner’s email correspondence. According to the AP report, it was only this week – well over a year after the scandal surfaced and investigations began – that the agency admitted it could not locate all of it.
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The reason, the agency said, is that Lerner’s computer crashed in 2011, apparently destroying two years’ worth of email. Technicians were able to retrieve much of Lerner’s correspondence by examining the computers of other IRS employees with whom she’d exchanged emails. However, they told lawmakers, it was impossible for them to know how many emails they had been unable to recover, especially as they have no access to computers in other government agencies or computers in private hands.
This is especially frustrating for conservative lawmakers heading the investigations into the scandal: Their contention has long been that the decision to delay applications from conservative groups may have originated at the White House.
No evidence has ever been found to suggest that was the case, but it hasn’t stopped lawmakers from publicly speculating, and the news that the IRS has lost Lerner’s correspondence will likely push the IRS scandal into the spotlight once again.
Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee echoed other members of his party when he voiced his frustration to the AP Friday. The news wire quoted him saying, “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS’ response to congressional inquiries. There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the inspector general.”
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