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.
“We know Ms. Lerner’s not being square with the American people,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said that Lerner’s response of “perfect” was to Hooke’s recommendation that IRS staffers act as if the instant messages could be saved. Jordan called Connolly’s interpretation of the email exchange “ridiculous.”
“You expect us, and more importantly the American people, to believe that, ‘oh yeah, perfect, now we know we need to save these?’” Jordan said. “There is no one with any common sense who would reach that interpretation that my colleague reached. But if you want to stick to it, God bless you.”
Koskinen told the panel that he had never seen the document and that he was unfamiliar with the instant messaging system.
“I’m not familiar with OCS. All I can say is that I’ve been assured numerous times that there’s been a search through every system in the IRS to make sure we’ve provided you all the Lois Lerner e-mails we can find,” he said.
Jordan grilled Koskinen over why these emails were only released this month and reprimanded the commissioner for providing “flippant” answers to his questions.
Several lawmakers asked Koskinen about when the agency would make officials available to talk about how the emails were misplaced.
Koskinen said he would not do so until an internal investigation is complete.
“I’ve tried to be responsive in any way that I can, both in my previous hearings and now. I understand these are important matters. And any information we can provide, we will,” Koskinen said.
Lerner retired last year as head of the IRS unit that screened the nonprofit groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.
Lerner has twice refused to answer questions during appearances before Congress, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights. She was held in contempt of Congress in May for refusing to testify before Issa’s committee.
A federal judge ordered the IRS on Thursday to file a sworn declaration in writing describing how it lost emails connected to Lerner. The judge also assigned a federal magistrate specializing in “electronic discovery” to find out if there is another way to retrieve the emails.
At a hearing on Friday examining a lawsuit against the IRS by conservative group True the Vote, a second federal judge ordered the IRS to explain under oath what happened to the emails.