"I find this shocking" that the IG could find the emails so quickly, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

"I find this shocking" that the IG could find the emails so quickly, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Susan Walsh/AP

How a Treasury Watchdog Found Long-Lost Lois Lerner Emails in Just Two Weeks

During evening hearing on the discovery, House members tangle over alleged ‘criminal’ acts and IG bias.

An inspector general’s staff took just two weeks to find emails that the Internal Revenue Commissioner had called unrecoverable, a House oversight panel was told at an unusual Thursday evening hearing.

But the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration was also put on notice of a new complaint of his alleged pro-Republican bias. And lawmakers split on whether House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffettz, R-Utah, had summoned the witnesses “prematurely” given that their investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of congressional requests for documents on the political targeting controversy is a work in progress.

In the latest wrinkle in the saga of the missing emails from former IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner, Inspector General J. Russell George and his deputy described their efforts since last July to both retrieve lost emails and determine whether the IRS—as many Republicans on the panel argue—has deliberately misled Congress in “potentially criminal” acts, as phrased by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Timothy Camus, deputy inspector general for investigations at TIGTA, did not dismiss potential criminality, but he and his boss both cautioned that “the facts and analysis may change as we conduct more interviews.”

Camus’ testimony contradicted Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen’s letter and testimony to the Senate and House last spring and summer that the backups of the emails had been overwritten or destroyed as part of a normal process. (Koskinen subsequently said he welcomes efforts by TIGTA to uncover lost emails.)

Camus described a complex story of locating two sets of previously undiscovered emails spread around hundreds of hard drives and backed on 744 tapes stored on near email servers in New Carrollton, Md., and in Martinsburg, W. Va. The emails -- mostly from 2008-11 and related to Lerner and six other individuals with whom she corresponded -- originally numbered 80,000, but after TIGTA removed those duplicating what the IRS has already turned over to Congress, number some 32,000.

“We are still finalizing” the new emails to redact them for privacy and compare them to what Congress already has, Camus said.  “We set out to leave no stone unturned.” Even though the IRS apparently lacked a “clear layout” of how it stored the recovered tapes, IRS staff “cooperated and answered our questions fully,” Camus said.

“I find this shocking,” Chaffetz said, marveling that it took TIGTA only two weeks to locate the emails by driving to West Virginia. “We’ve sent subpoenas and letters, and held hearings and heard every excuse under the sun, but then you find them in two weeks.” The IRS may talk about having 250 staffers involved in document production for Congress, Chaffetz added, “but the main thing is what we asked for we did not get.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said he “sympathized with the chairman’s frustration,” but then turned on inspector general George for failing to reply to a 26-page complaint from Democrats last September. Connolly and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., accused George of violating guidelines in the inspector general’s handbook by meeting with Republicans on the Oversight panel under then-Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., while excluding Democrats. George was also asked about omitting documentation from the May 2013 audit that triggered the IRS targeting controversy that Connolly said showed that progressive groups’ applications for nonprofit status were also delayed, not just those of Tea Party groups. “What standing do you have advising this committee on which documents to provide?” Connolly demanded. He told George he would now file a new written complaint to the chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

George responded that he had been “exonerated” by the council and that the FBI, which controls documents for the IG council, had cited privacy considerations as a reason not to respond. He said he would take the matter under advisement.

“I have engaged in bipartisanship throughout my career,” George said. “This case is unprecedented in my career in the level of attention, raising questions about trust in the IRS.” On the specifics, George added, “I don’t control the attendees at meetings, and I was not informed in advance of who would be at the meetings. We did change our policy” after Democrats complained, he said. “You are correct that we have an obligation to meet with both sides.”

George also revealed that he has launched a new probe of 17 inappropriate search terms used by the IRS Exempt Organization applications processors that would reflect a focus on progressive groups going back to 2004. But that work has been slowed by the Justice Department’s investigation, which has produced no indictments or conclusions as of yet. Justice officials’ interviews with witnesses take precedence, he said.

Camus for the first time explained an email from himself written just before the IRS controversy broke, in which he said that there was no political targeting but there was “an unclear processing directive.” That conclusion was not included in the May 2013 audit, he said, because it was based on only a small sample.

Both George and Camus stressed that they had not come to conclusions about criminal activity, though Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., got Camus to agree that Congress appeared to “have been misled” by the IRS.

Jordan’s reference to “potential criminal activity” drew a rebuttal from Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., who said he was “concerned about this whole process being unfair to people being investigated. It’s all speculation, and we shouldn’t go off half-cocked until we have have evidence.”

Camus said an analysis of the new tapes will take only weeks but has been delayed by a disagreement with a software vendor over licensing. That prompted Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to call the hearing premature. “Why are we here at 8:00 in the evening for something that may not be material at all?” she asked.

Chairman Chaffetz responded by noting the hundreds of new tapes that were found, adding, “We haven’t had an update in a year and a half.”