On June 13, 2011, a colleague of former IRS official Lois Lerner sent out a blast email of the sort familiar to many office workers: "Lois' hard drive has crashed on her computer and will be without email," the message read, according to documents released last week by the IRS. But if computer crashes are common in the modern workplace, this particular one is getting the attention of Congressional investigators looking into Lerner's role in alleged politically motivated scrutiny of right-wing political organizations by the IRS.
That's because in an age where every teenager is taught that sent emails live forever somewhere in the electronic ether, Lerner's hard-drive crash apparently managed to obliterate all record of her written electronic communications from Jan. 1, 2009, to April 2011 with anyone outside the IRS. That fact, reported Friday by the IRS to Congress, has infuriated Republicans in the Senate and House.
"Today’s admission by the IRS that they cannot produce Lois Lerner’s emails is an outrageous impediment to our investigation," the Senate Finance Committee's top Republican Orrin Hatch said in a statement released Friday. "Even more egregious is the fact we are learning about this a full year after our initial request to provide the Committee with any and all documents relating to our investigation," Hatch said.
Now Hatch and his GOP counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, are demanding even more digging for emails on the Administration's part. On Monday, Camp wrote President Obama to request any emails Lerner sent to anyone at the White House during the period covered by her hard-drive crash; and he similarly requested any emails she sent to Treasury, Justice, the EPA, the Federal Election Commission and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
In the normal course of government business it would be unusual for a midlevel bureaucrat at the IRS would be in touch with the executive office of the President. But then in the normal course of business it would be unusual for a hard-drive crash to wipe all records of emails ever sent from the computer, anywhere.
The IRS explained the developments in its Friday letter to Congress by saying that before 2013 the agency's policy was to daily back up emails on tapes that were saved for six months and then over-written. Josh Earnest, the incoming White House press secretary, on Monday called speculation of foul play "indicative of the kinds of conspiracy that are propagated around this story."
Democrats say the GOP's attempt to find a political motivation in the IRS's handling of applications for non-profit status from right wing groups is itself a politically motivated enterprise by Republicans seeking to rile up their base ahead of midterm elections. The Democrats point to a May 2013 email from the head of investigations for the IRS inspector general's office to colleagues finding "there was no indication" that the slow down in processing Tea Party non-profit applications "was politically motivated."
Republicans are having none of it. Wrote Camp to Obama on Monday: "We are simply not going to accept the IRS claim that these documents are not recoverable. We will demand the President live up to his promise to work "hand in hand" with Congress to get the facts. He can do so by quickly ordering his White House and key agencies to immediately conduct an exhaustive search for all Lois Lerner emails. There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by an independent special investigator.”
— With additional reporting by Zeke Miller / Washington