WASHINGTON — Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen faces tough questioning Friday from Congress about lost e-mails belonging to the protagonist in the scandal over inappropriate targeting of conservative organizations.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee will grill him about when he and others knew that the computer hard drive of then-IRS division chief Lois Lerner had crashed, losing key information long sought by Congress and the news media.
Koskinen also will appear before before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Monday. That panel has subpoenaed phones, thumb drives and all electronic storage devices that belonged to Lerner during her time at the IRS.
In February, Koskinen promised to provide congressional committees of jurisdiction with all the e-mails from Lerner, who headed the Exempt Organizations division of the IRS until she was placed on administrative leave last year and refused to testify before Congress, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. She oversaw a process in which the IRS made it harder for some conservative groups to win special tax-exempt status.
Late last Friday, the IRS said in a statement that the hard drive on Lerner’s computer at work had “crashed” and the information it contained couldn’t be recovered. The detailed explanation the IRS provided to the friendlier Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee raised more questions than it answered.
Adding to a growing scandal, several Republican lawmakers said this week that they had been told that several other top-level IRS officials also had reported hard-drive crashes and unrecoverable material. One of them was Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, whom President Obama fired last year as the scandal unfolded.
“John Koskinen has a lot of explaining to do. He hasn’t just failed to restore a pre-targeting-scandal level of public trust in the IRS, but things have actually gotten worse under his watch,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the oversight committee, told McClatchy.
“Congress made it abundantly clear to him that all of Lois Lerner’s e-mails were the top priority. Waiting a year to tell us the IRS destroyed that evidence doesn’t mesh well with claims that this was an innocent mistake and they’re working hard to cooperate.”
The office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told McClatchy on Thursday that Koskinen had told the senator Monday that he’d learned about the lost e-mails three weeks ago, but the IRS commissioner did not say why he didn’t immediately inform Congress.
The IRS told Hatch, his office said, that the e-mails had been backed up to a computer tape that has since been wiped clean, part of the usual recycling process within the agency.
The White House said the e-mails in question were from a period between 2009 and 2011, and the reported hard-drive crash happened well before the IRS scandal broke in the spring of 2013.
“Nonetheless, the IRS has or will produce 24,000 Lerner e-mails from this 2009-2011 time period, largely from the files of the other 82 individuals,” spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, adding that the White House had searched for e-mails between staff and Lerner in that period. “We found zero e-mails – sorry to disappoint – between Lois Lerner and anyone within” the White House during that period.