WASHINGTON – House Republicans released emails on Wednesday showing that Louis Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of the tea party scandal, warned her colleagues “to be cautious” about what they wrote in emails because of potential interest from congressional investigators.
Republicans took the opportunity to grill IRS commissioner John Koskinen, who was testifying before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on improper government payments, over Lerner’s lost emails.
At the hearing, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released new emails he says show Lerner deliberately sought to hide information from Congress. The emails were turned over to the panel last week, more than a year after the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed all documents relating to the targeting scandal that began in 2010.
The IRS disclosed last month that Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011 and has since been destroyed.
The agency, however, said it was still able to retrieve roughly 24,000 of her emails from 2009 to 2011 by piecing together the emails from the computers of 83 other workers.
Republicans on the panel said those emails raised more questions about the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups, especially because they were sent less than two weeks after an IRS inspector general gave Lerner a copy of his audit on the targeting scandal.
In the email exchange, Lerner asks a colleague whether Congress can search communications made through an internal messaging system.
Lerner sent an email to IRS IT employee Maria Hooke on April 19, 2013, asking about the international communication system, known as the Office Communication Server (OCS), and whether Congress could access those messages.
“I was cautioning folks about email and how we have had several occasions where Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails – so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails,” Lerner wrote. “Someone asked if OCS conversations were also searchable – I don’t know. …Do you know?”
Hooke responded that the messages “are not set to automatically save” but anyone could “copy and save the contents” to an email or file.
“My general recommendation is to treat the conversation as if it could/is being saved somewhere, as it is possible for either party of the conversation to retain the information and have it turn up as part of an electronic search,” Hooke said. “Make sense?”
Lerner replied: “Perfect.”
Republicans said Lerner’s response after learning that the instant message communications were not stored automatically suggests that she had something to hide.