Missing IRS Emails: Bureaucratic Failure Or Cover-Up?

After the IRS says it lost thousands of Lois Lerner's emails, questions are emerging of whether this was a simple bureaucratic failure or a cover-up.

Missing IRS Emails: Bureaucratic Failure Or Cover-Up?
The New York Times / Doug Mills

The IRS says it lost emails central to Congress' investigation into the agency. But while White House officials call this a simple bureaucratic failure, conservatives have labeled it a full-blown conspiracy.

Republican lawmakers blasted IRS commissioner John Koskinen at a congressional hearing Friday after learning the agency would not be able to produce thousands of promised emails of former official Lois Lerner due to a crashed hard drive. (Via HLN)

REP. PAUL RYAN: "I don't believe you. This isn't credible ... Being forthcoming is to say, you know what Congress who is investigating us..." 

REP. SANDER LEVIN: "Let him answer the question."

REP. PAUL RYAN: "I didn't ask him a question!" (Via Fox News)

REP. KEVIN BRADY: "Why should anyone believe you? ... You're telling us out of thousands of IRS computers, the one that lost the emails was the person of interest in a congressional investigation." (Via The New York Times)

The IRS told members of Congress earlier this week that the hard drive of Lois Lerner, the former head of the tax-exempt status division, had been thrown away in 2011 after crashing. (Via ABC)

Politico reports two sources citing IRS officials told them the same thing, explaining Lerner's hard drive had been "recycled" as was standard procedure after IT experts were unable to recover its contents. Politico's Rachel Bade writes: "It may just be standard government procedure, but the revelation is significant."

That's because Lerner and other IRS officials were found to have improperly scrutinized the Tea Party and other conservative groups for tax-exempt status beginning in spring 2010. 

For the record, IRS documents showed liberal groups were also targeted, showing that the agency had scrutinized political action groups of all kinds, not just conservatives. (Via CNN)

Some Republicans believe the additional scrutiny may have been politically motivated and say that if there is a smoking gun connecting the White House to the scandal, it's likely somewhere in Lerner's emails sent between 2009 and 2011. (Via NPR, The Christian Science Monitor)

Former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney denied that claim, telling reporters there was no communication between the Obama administration and Lerner during that time.

CARNEY: "We did in fact do a search for all communications between Lois Lerner and any person within the executive office of the president during the period. We found zero emails. Sorry to disappoint."

But the discovery that Lerner's hard drive was physically discarded, and the fact that the IRS has known about it for some time, is raising some eyebrows. 

Contesting the idea of an IRS cover up, Koskinen explains emails were sent at the time demonstrating Lerner requested assistance from the agency's criminal investigation division to retrieve her emails after her computer crashed. (Via CBS

KOSKINEN: "They worked for several weeks trying to restore the emails in 2011 before anybody knew this was going to be a big issue. They were unsuccessful, so it doesn't appear from the information that anybody was doing anything other than trying to retrieve the emails." (Via CNN)

CNN says it acquired those emails, and reports at the end of the email chain, an IT employee writes Lerner: "Unfortunately the news is not good. The sectors on the hard drive were bad which made your data unrecoverable." She replied: "I really do appreciate the effort. Sometimes stuff just happens."

​Many Republican lawmakers don't see it that way, expressing it's hypocritical for the IRS to so easily lose a top official's emails while requiring taxpayers to keep such extensive receipt records. 

​RYAN: "You ask tax payers to hang on to seven years of their personal tax information in case they're ever audited, and you can't keep six months worth of employee emails?" (Via C-SPAN)

The IRS insists its record-keeping policies for officials were consistent with federal law mandating it at the time. It reportedly changed the way it backs up official records in May 2013, shortly before the controversy came to light.