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August 19, 2014

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IRS commissioner says no apology owed over lost emails

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014, before the House Ways and Means Committee as it continues to probe whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS.

Updated Friday, June 20, 2014 | 10:46 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service commissioner said Friday the agency will not share with Congress additional details about its lost emails related to the ongoing tea party investigation until its own review is finished because he said Republicans are releasing inaccurate, interim information.

"We're not going to dribble out the information and have it played out in the press," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. He added that any emails recovered from inside the agency will be shared with lawmakers as they were found. Nevertheless, it was a remarkably bold statement for an executive branch official to make to the congressional committee that oversees its activities.

Koskinen's promise to allow the IRS to complete its internal investigation before sharing its findings with Congress about lost emails stored on malfunctioned computers was intended to blunt what has become a fierce, politically charged inquiry ahead of this year's congressional elections. The IRS is accused of improperly reviewing applications of tea party and other conservative groups for tax-exempt status.

Friday's congressional hearing was unusually tense, as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, and other Republicans occasionally interrupted Koskinen and pressed him on other questions before Koskinen had an opportunity to answer. Some Democrats apologized to Koskinen.

The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sander Levin of Mich., chided his colleagues that, "Witnesses deserve some respect."

Republicans were contentious.

"This is the most corrupt and deceitful IRS in history," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas said.

"Calling this IRS the most corrupt in history ignores a lot of history and seems to me a classic overreaction to a problem that we are dealing with seriously," Koskinen responded.

At another point, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate, told Koskinen: "That's your problem, nobody believes you."

Koskinen replied: "I have a long career. That's the first time that anybody said they don't believe me."

Congress has sought documents related to former IRS executive Lois Lerner's involvement in the tea party investigation since 2012. The IRS has provided thousands of documents, including many of Lerner's. But it was only in February of this year that the IRS learned some of Lerner's emails might be missing and unrecoverable. The IRS told Congress a week ago that some of Lerner's emails were lost in a 2011 computer crash.

On Monday, the IRS told some members of Congress that other employees involved in the probe also experienced hard drive crashes. Camp issued a news release the following day stating that emails belonging to Lerner's boss' chief of staff, Nikole Flax, were also missing. But on Friday, Koskinen said Flax's hard drive crashed but no emails were lost.

"Those press releases with regard to Nikole Flax were inaccurate and misleading, and it demonstrates why we will provide this committee a full report about the custodian review when it is completed," Koskinen said.

An FBI investigation is ongoing. Koskinen said Friday the Treasury Department Inspector General for Tax Administration is investigating the failure of Lerner's hard drive.

Koskinen said the IRS took extra measures to try to retrieve the lost emails. The IRS has said technicians sent Lerner's hard drive to a forensic lab run by the agency's criminal investigations unit. But the information was not recoverable, a technician told her in an Aug. 5, 2011, email. But Koskinen was unapologetic about the computer crashes or the period when the IRS eventually advised Congress that emails it had sought were lost.

"I don't think an apology is owed," Koskinen said.

"I want that hard drive and I want the hard drive of every computer that crashed," Camp said.

Koskinen said the hard drive was recycled and presumably destroyed. He said it's not clear whether all eight of the hard drive failures resulted in lost emails.

Koskinen also said appointment of a special federal prosecutor to investigate the IRS handling of tax-exempt applications would be a "monumental waste of taxpayer funds."

Lerner, who is at the center of the investigation, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers' questions. Lerner's computer crashed sometime around June 13, 2011, according to emails provided to Congress. She first learned about the tea party reviews on June 29, according to an earlier audit by the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.

The IRS was able to find copies of 24,000 Lerner emails from between 2009 and 2011 because Lerner had sent copies to other IRS employees. Overall, the IRS said it was producing 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, covering 2009 to 2013. The agency said it searched for emails of 83 people and spent nearly $10 million to produce hundreds of thousands of documents.

At the time that Lerner's computer crashed, IRS policy had been to make copies of all IRS employees' email inboxes every day and hold them for six months. The agency changed the policy in May 2013 to keep these snapshots for a longer, unspecified amount of time. Had this been the policy in 2011, when at least two of the computer crashes occurred, there likely could have been backups of the lost emails today.

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