WASHINGTON — The head of the House Oversight Committee said Thursday it “defies any sense of logic” that IRS employees mistakenly erased computer backup tapes containing thousands of emails related to the tax agency’s tea party scandal.
The IRS’s inspector general told the committee that IRS workers erased hundreds of computer backup tapes that “most likely” contained as many as 24,000 emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner. Lerner has emerged as a central figure in congressional investigations.
However, the inspector general said, there was no evidence that the tapes — or any of the emails — were erased as part of a criminal conspiracy to destroy evidence.
“You add this all in combination, it just defies any sense of logic,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the Oversight Committee. “It gets to the point where it truly gets to be unbelievable. Somebody has to be held accountable.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said the revelations are further proof that Republicans have overblown the scandal in an attempt to smear the Obama administration.
“This investigation has squandered tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in a failed scavenger hunt for any possible evidence to support wild Republican accusations against Lois Lerner, the IRS, and the White House,” Cummings said.
J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified Thursday before the Oversight Committee.
George said the workers erased the backup tapes a month after IRS officials discovered that an untold number of Lerner’s emails were lost. He said the workers were unaware of a year-old directive not to destroy email backup tapes.
The revelation is fueling conspiracy theories among conservatives who say the IRS has obstructed investigations into the scandal.
“Imagine if this was all reversed. Imagine if you were on the receiving end of an inquiry from the IRS, and they asked you for documents and they issued you a subpoena, and you destroyed the evidence,” Chaffetz said. “What would happen to you? You would be prosecuted to the fullest. You’d end up in jail. You probably should.”
An IRS spokeswoman said the agency had no immediate comment.
George is an independent investigator who was nominated by former President George W. Bush. He set off a firestorm in May 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Several hundred groups had their applications delayed for a year or more. Some were asked inappropriate questions about donors and group activities, the inspector general’s report said.
Lerner used to head the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. The IRS had discovered that the emails were lost in February 2014. A month later, workers erased the 422 computer backup tapes, George said.
In June 2014, the IRS told Congress it had lost an unknown number of Lerner’s emails when her computer hard drive crashed in 2011.
The IRS says it has since produced 78,000 Lerner emails, mainly from the computers of other IRS employees. IRS officials said no more could be recovered.
George, however, said the IRS never examined backup tapes that ultimately produced more than 1,000 additional emails.
After George’s initial report, much of the IRS’s top leadership was forced to retire or resign, including Lerner. The Justice Department and several congressional committees launched investigations.
Lerner emerged as a central figure in the controversy after she refused to answer questions at two House Oversight hearings, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself at both hearings. At the first hearing, Lerner made a statement saying she had done nothing wrong.
Last year, the House voted mostly along party lines to hold her in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at the hearings. The U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia declined to prosecute her.