IRS chief, Republicans clash at hearing on missing emails

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WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing examining how the IRS lost thousands of emails sought by investigators turned into a shouting match Friday, with Republicans on the panel accusing the IRS commissioner of lying.

“Sitting here listening to this testimony, I don’t believe it,” Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told Commissioner John Koskinen at a Ways and Means Committee hearing. “That’s you problem. No one believes you.” Mr. Ryan, referring to the agency’s practice of overwriting backup tapes, added, “You ask taxpayers 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?”

Committee Democrats repeatedly objected to Republicans who interrupted Mr. Koskinen before he could answer or used their time to confront the commissioner without asking a question. “For him to take the oath and then have people suggest to him, ‘We don’t believe you,’ that is not the way this committee has functioned in the past, and it ought not to be the way we function going forward,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass.

Mr. Koskinen, in his testimony, pointed to a report by an inspector general of the Treasury Department, the parent agency of the IRS, which concluded that while agency employees had acted improperly, there was no evidence of political motivation or outside influence. He also said a delay in the disclosure of the lost emails was not indicative of a cover-up.

He submitted as evidence an email exchange from 2011 between the agency’s technology staff and Lois Lerner, then an IRS official, in which she sought to have her messages restored. He said a computer crash and an effort to retrieve the lost messages had occurred before the agency was notified that Congress was receiving complaints from conservative political groups that they were being unfairly scrutinized.

Several of the Democrats called the panel’s inquiry a “witch hunt” meant to create the appearance of a conspiracy during an election year. Some of them, instead of asking their own questions, gave their time to Mr. Koskinen to respond to the Republicans’ accusations.

The Democrats also said the committee’s inquiry was missing a larger point: that political groups of all kinds were effectively getting subsidies from taxpayers as “social welfare groups,” even though they actually conducted political activities.

During the past week, the IRS has said thousands of emails of interest to investigators looking into suspected mistreatment of political groups by the agency had been destroyed because of computer crashes affecting seven employees. Those employees included Ms. Lerner, who has been accused of orchestrating a politically motivated effort to hold up applications for tax exemption from Tea Party groups before the 2012 election.

Republican lawmakers responded to the disclosure with incredulity, questioning whether the emails were truly unrecoverable and accusing the agency of a Nixonian cover-up. They have also suggested that the disappearance of the emails violated federal record-keeping laws.

Several GOP lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee said the IRS had lost credibility because of repeated denials that Republicans claimed turned out to be wrong. “Over three years ago, this committee started asking the IRS: Was it targeting conservatives for their beliefs, was it asking groups inappropriate questions, was it harassing conservative donors,” said chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. “The IRS assured this committee, and even testified before Congress, time and time again, that no targeting was occurring.” 

He said that the IRS’ denials had since been proved untrue. “The IRS lied to Congress and the American people,” Mr. Camp said. “In fact, this committee has found that there’s ample evidence to suggest the IRS violated the constitutional rights of taxpayers.” He then chastised the agency for withholding information about the missing emails until last week, even though it had shared that information with Treasury Department officials weeks before then.

Ms. Lerner, who quit in September as the head of the agency’s division on tax-exempt organizations, was cited for contempt by the Republican-led House last month, after refusing to answer lawmakers’ questions. In a previous hearing she had read a statement asserting her innocence, but then declined to answer questions, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. Republican lawmakers contended that Ms. Lerner had effectively waived her Fifth Amendment right by commenting on the accusations against her in the statement and in other settings, including under questioning from the Justice Department.

Some Republicans have called for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’ suspected misconduct. So far, the Justice Department has declined to appoint one.

United States government - United States Congress - U.S. Republican Party - Dave Lee Camp - Paul Ryan - Richard Neal


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