WASHINGTON – Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen informed a House committee that perhaps thousands of emails from Lois Lerner and five other agency officials are unrecoverable and were not backed up despite claims from some conservative groups to the contrary.
Koskinen, appearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee for the fourth time, assured lawmakers that the IRS is providing the panel with all available data and is not hiding any pertinent information.
There have been, Koskinen told the committee, “some confusing press reports” that the IRS backs up information by sending it to a government-wide database.
“There is no system outside the IRS – government or otherwise – that the IRS uses to store emails,” Koskinen said. “Even if such a system existed, the IRS would be prohibited…from using such a database for email storage.”
The committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has sought the emails of Lerner, the onetime director of the agency’s Exempt Organizations Unit, as part of an ongoing investigation into claims that the IRS rejected or slow-walked applications from a variety of conservative groups for tax-exempt status.
Republicans maintain the agency’s handling of the applications for 501(c)(4) status was politically motivated and that Lerner is a central figure in the controversy. The panel sought her emails and the emails of others who may have been involved, but they have been foiled in that effort because of a reported computer crash in June 2011.
“One of the limitations on our ability to recover emails from the period covered by Ms. Lerner’s hard drive crash is that, as previously explained to the Oversight Committee, disaster recovery tapes containing data for that period no longer existed,” Koskinen said. “Although IRS email servers are backed up on a daily basis for disaster recovery purposes, prior to May 2013, this data was retained on tapes for only six months. After six months, IRS disaster recovery tapes were reused – that is, they were written over with new backup data – until they were no longer capable of recording, at which time the tapes were recycled.”
Koskinen also said Lerner’s BlackBerry, which also has drawn committee interest, was “disposed of under standard IRS recycling procedures” to protect confidential taxpayer information before questions were raised about her activities regarding the conservative groups. The commissioner assured lawmakers the BlackBerry would not have contained any information they were seeking anyway since her IRS email account was handled elsewhere.
The IRS has since taken steps, Koskinen said, to make sure that problems similar to those encountered regarding the Lerner emails do not recur, backing up vital records on a secure server instead of on an individual user’s hard drive.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that all email records are not only securely saved and stored, but also easily retrievable,” Koskinen said. “This result would require funds that we do not have, but we continue to look for other solutions, and we are holding discussions with other government agencies that are dealing with similar challenges.”
Koskinen also told the committee that the IRS is addressing the resulting backlog of 501(c)(4) applications, “including the group of 145 cases in the priority backlog – those that were pending for 120 days or more as of May 2013.”
As of Sept. 9, 133 of those cases, 91 percent, have been closed. Of the closed cases, 102 were approved. Of the remaining 31 closed cases, most were closed without a determination, either because the organization withdrew the application or it failed to respond to agency questions. Four applications have been denied and the remaining 12 cases are still open.
As has become standard operating procedure for the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, rancor quickly followed Koskinen’s testimony.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) promised to continue calling the commissioner before the committee until he and others are satisfied that they have received proper answers about the missing Lerner emails.
“The reason we keep bringing Mr. Koskinen back is when he tells us something we later learn ‘it’s not right,’” Jordan said.
Jordan also ripped Koskinen for a recent interview that appeared in the newsletter Tax Notes. Koskinen was quoted as accusing some lawmakers of seeking to extend the IRS probe for political purposes, asserting that “there are some people who don’t want a straight story.”
“That’s the part that just frosts me, and more important the American people,” Jordan said.
Addressing harsh criticism from the GOP panel members, Koskinen assured them, “I’ve tried to tell the truth every time I’ve been here.”