Conservatives are outraged at the IRS' disclosure late Friday that it had lost a trove of former administrator Lois Lerner's emails on the targeting of tea party groups, with one critic likening it to the infamous gap in a tape of President Richard Nixon's conversations during the Watergate scandal.
"Liars. They're such liars. Unbelievable," charged Washington attorney Cleta Mitchell, who is representing several groups in a federal lawsuit over the targeting in their applications for tax-exempt status. "This is outrageous. They're lying.
"This is like the 18-and-a-half minutes in Rose Mary Woods' tape," Mitchell said, referring to the gap in the audio tape of a June 20, 1972, conversation believed to have been held between Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. "It's ridiculous. I just don't believe them."
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the groups that received its tax-exempt status after suing the IRS, said the revelation "doesn’t pass the smell test and smacks of obstruction of justice."
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing 41 targeted groups
in a federal lawsuit against the IRS, said "this is insanity."
"Hollywood couldn’t write a script with any more scandal and intrigue than what is unfolding in the IRS targeting scandal," he said in a report on the organization's website
And Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, suggested that the White House was being dishonest in saying that the emails were lost.
"Isn’t it convenient for the Obama administration that the IRS now says it has suddenly realized it lost Lois Lerner’s emails requested by Congress and promised by Commissioner John Koskinen?" the California Republican asked in a statement. "Do they really expect the American people to believe that, after having withheld these emails for a year, they're just now realizing the most critical time period is missing?"
The Internal Revenue Service told Congress late Friday that it could not locate many of Lerner's emails prior to 2011 because her computer crashed that summer.
Lerner headed the IRS division that processed applications for tax-exempt status. The agency was found in May 2013 to have improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status by tea party, religious, and other conservative groups. The screening generally involved unusual delays and detailed requests for information.
The scrutiny started in 2010 and continued to just before the 2012 presidential election. Besides the Tea Party Patriots, other groups targeted were True the Vote
, the Houston-based organization that combats election fraud, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies
, a nonprofit political group advised by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Lerner, who retired last September
because of the scandal, was found in contempt of Congress
in May after refusing to testify before Issa's committee.
When she first appeared before the oversight committee not long after the scandal broke, Lerner denied wrongdoing but refused to answer questions, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. She took the Fifth in a second hearing before the panel in March.
The Oversight Committee is one of three congressional panels that have been investigating the IRS scandal for more than a year. The others are the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
The Justice Department and the IRS inspector general are also investigating.
Emails have since been disclosed showing that Lerner discussed working with Justice
to prosecute nonprofits that she felt had "lied" about their political activities — and that the communications occurred within days of publicly acknowledging that the targeting had occurred.
In February, Koskinen, who took over the embattled agency in December, pledged to work with Congress
on the various investigations.
The IRS said in a statement on Friday that it was able to generate 24,000 Lerner emails from 2009 to 2011 because Lerner had copied in other IRS employees. The agency said it pieced together the emails from the computers of 83 other IRS employees.
But an undetermined number are gone, the agency said.
Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, said that the missing emails primarily involve people from outside the IRS, "such as the White House, Treasury, Department of Justice, [Federal Election Commission], or Democrat offices."
"The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the IRS's response to congressional inquiries," Camp said in a statement. "There needs to be an immediate investigation and forensic audit by Department of Justice as well as the inspector general."
In addition, the IRS said in its statement that it had gone to great lengths cooperating with congressional investigations, spending nearly $10 million to produce more than 750,000 documents.
Overall, the IRS said it had produced 67,000 emails to and from Lerner, covering the period from 2009 to 2013.
"The IRS is committed to working with Congress," the agency said. "The IRS has remained focused on being thorough and responding as quickly as possible to the wide-ranging requests from Congress while taking steps to protect underlying taxpayer information."
The announcement drew the ire of many Republicans. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top GOP member on the Finance Committee, called the disclosure "an outrageous impediment" to its investigation.
"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 in a statement. "And while the IRS has agreed to turn over additional documentation, I am still greatly troubled that the administration failed to notify the committee of this when they first became aware of it."
Mitchell called it standard fare for the Obama White House: a late-Friday afternoon release of major news.
"They do it over and over and over," she told Newsmax. "There are so many questions that are raised by this 'revelation.'"
They include, she posed: "Why are we just hearing this today, more than a year after the investigation started?
"What exactly are the FBI and NSA's forensics experts doing to retrieve this 'hard-drive crash'?" she added. "Do we believe that the FBI has not been called in — and that they have not been able to retrieve these 'lost' emails? There are so many things."
Mitchell said that she will be taking action next week in their federal lawsuit to prevent all federal agencies involved in the scandal — even Lerner's attorney, William Taylor III — from destroying any evidence in the case.
"We actually have remedies in federal court that Congress doesn't appear to have."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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