WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s No. 2 official told a House subcommittee on Thursday that investigators are expanding their probe into the IRS scandal to include Obama administration claims that it is unable to provide certain email records from a key figure because of a computer crash.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole informed lawmakers that he couldn’t provide many details, noting that “in order to protect the integrity and independence of this investigation, we cannot disclose non-public information about the investigation while it remains pending.”
But Cole did tell the Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs that the investigation now “includes investigating the circumstances of the lost emails from Ms. (Lois) Lerner’s computer.”
“We recognize the committee’s interest in this matter,” Cole said. “We share that interest and are conducting a thorough and complete investigation and analysis of the allegations of targeting by the IRS. While I know you are frustrated by the fact that I cannot at this time disclose any specifics about the investigation, I do pledge to you that when our investigation is completed, we will provide Congress with detailed information about the facts we uncovered and the conclusions we reached in this matter.”
But some panel members weren’t satisfied with Cole’s reluctance and continued to push for a special prosecutor, questioning the ability of the Justice Department to conduct an unbiased probe. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, pressed Cole to publicly acknowledge that unlawful behavior occurred within the IRS.
“Crimes were committed,” Issa said. “Regulations were violated. Rules were broken and Americans’ constitutional rights were violated by Lois Lerner and perhaps others around her.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the subcommittee chairman, expressed “serious concerns” about the investigation and again raised the issue of a special prosecutor, citing possible conflicts of interest among those appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the matter.
Republicans on the committee remain particularly wary about the involvement of Barbara Bosserman, an attorney in the department’s Civil Rights Division, who has contributed to President Obama’s political campaigns.
“These are serious conflicts of interest, but the Justice Department wants us to look the other way,” Jordan said.
Cole told the committee that, despite some reports, Bosserman is not leading the investigation and that her past political contributions do not constitute a conflict so grave that it requires the appointment of a special prosecutor.
“That criminal investigation is being conducted by career attorneys and agents of the department’s Criminal and Civil Rights Divisions, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration,” Cole said. “I have the utmost confidence in the career professionals in the department and the TIGTA and I know that they will follow the facts wherever they lead and apply the law to those facts.”
The investigation involves allegations that the IRS inappropriately scrutinized politically conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status beginning in February 2012. Under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations that meet certain criteria and focus on advancing “social welfare” goals are exempted from federal income taxes, although donations to these organizations are not tax deductible.
Organizations popularly referred to as 501(c)(4)s are allowed to participate in campaign-related activities provided that these activities do not comprise a majority of the organizations’ efforts.
On May 12, 2013, the Treasury Department inspector general issued a report that found that the IRS Division of Exempt Organizations inappropriately targeted Tea Party and other conservative applicants for tax-exempt status and subjected them to heightened scrutiny, resulting in extended delays that sidelined some applicants during the 2012 election cycle.
Lerner, who led the Division of Exempt Organizations before her resignation in light of the probe, is seen as a key player but she has refused to cooperate with and testify before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. The panel sought thousands of emails dispatched by Lerner from her office, looking to determine if any information could be gleaned from her messages.
But the IRS revealed in May, to the consternation of committee Republicans, that it lost the emails from 2011 when Lerner’s computer crashed. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said he’s seen no evidence that anyone committed a crime in connection with the lost emails. There is no evidence that Lerner intentionally destroyed them, he said, adding that IRS has gone to great lengths trying to retrieve lost documents on her computer.
Regardless, the incident is now part of the Justice Department investigation.
Cole told lawmakers that the Justice Department learned about the reported computer crash through media reports at about the same time as the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. That led some Republicans to question the thoroughness of the probe.
“Does it not concern you that your exhaustive investigation didn’t uncover the missing emails?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “Should we be concerned that your investigation is not exhaustive?”
Cole acknowledged that, “I would have preferred to have learned earlier.”
Committee Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member, maintain no evidence of wrongdoing has been uncovered, asserting the liberal organization also came under the watchful eye of the IRS.
Cummings noted that the IRS already has spent $18 million responding to congressional panels with a finger in the probe.
“It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars and start focusing on reforms,” Cummings said.
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