Lawmakers argued late into the night Monday and again Tuesday morning over a computer drive that crashed in 2011, taking the controversy surrounding the Internal Revenue Service to a new level of acrimony.
Republicans said the broken device that belonged to former IRS official Lois Lerner is crucial evidence in their investigation of the agency and that the IRS was covering up its misdeeds. Lerner headed the IRS office that gave extra scrutiny to small-government groups seeking tax-exempt status and has refused to answer lawmakers’ questions.
"I’m sick and tired of your game-playing in response to congressional oversight," Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told IRS Commissioner John Koskinen at a hearing Monday night.
On Tuesday, Issa blasted a White House attorney he forced to testify on why years' worth of emails from Lerner have disappeared.
Issa accused White House attorney Jennifer O'Connor of being a "hostile witness" when she did not immediately answer one of his questions.
"I'm not a hostile witness," she retorted.
"Yes, you are," Issa, R-Calif., said. He later clarified to say she is "non-cooperative."
O’Connor told the panel she was not at the agency when the crash was discovered earlier this year.
"I did not know that her emails were missing and unrecoverable or that her computer crashed," said the lawyer, who specializes in responding to congressional investigations.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Issa's Democratic counterpart on the committee, slammed him for the "unilateral subpoena."
"Why is she here?" Cummings asked. "It's not because of her old job — it's because of her new one."
House Speaker John Boehner also weighed in Tuesday, saying the Obama administration is not helping Congress get to the truth.
The Ohio Republican says that even though President Barack Obama has promised to cooperate, the administration has not been helpful.
The IRS explanation "doesn't pass the straight face test," Boehner said.
Tuesday's hearing followed a session Monday night in which Koskinen testified and faced heated questions from lawmakers.
The email controversy is the latest in a 14-month partisan battle over the IRS, now deep in arguments about document-production techniques and whether a White House lawyer should testify.
The IRS says a catastrophic failure — the crash of Lerner’s computer hard drive, followed by the routine recycling of backup tapes — means that more than two years’ worth of her emails were wiped out.
Republicans don’t buy it. They argue that in an age where it seems like every keystroke lives forever, it’s too much to believe that these particular emails, from this particular person, simply vanished.
Boehner told reporters Tuesday that administration officials "not only haven’t cooperated, they frankly haven’t done a damn thing" to find out the truth about the loss of the emails.
Republicans criticized Koskinen for saying in March that the agency would produce all of Lerner’s emails and waiting until this month to disclose that the communications weren’t retrievable.
Koskinen testified Monday that he knew in March that there was a problem with Lerner’s emails. He said he didn’t know until April that some couldn’t be retrieved.
"If you have a magical way for me to do that, I’d be happy to know about it," he said.
Koskinen blamed the "aged equipment" that the IRS uses because of budget constraints. He said he was unaware of any attempts to retrieve Lerner’s documents from the backup tapes before they were recycled.
The tax agency said last week that the computer failure meant it couldn’t recover many of Lerner’s emails from 2009 to 2011, though it is providing lawmakers with 67,000 of them. Lerner retired last year.
After her hard drive crashed, Lerner tried to retrieve data that she said was irreplaceable, according to emails released by the IRS and highlighted by Democrats.
"This was not intentional," Cummings said. "This was not nefarious. This was not a conspiracy."
Koskinen told lawmakers that the hard drive crash occurred before any investigations started and that the agency’s inspector general is examining the matter.
Starting in 2010, the IRS gave tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status extra scrutiny based solely on their names, causing the groups to experience delays.
Agency officials have acknowledged those actions while insisting the IRS didn’t do so for political reasons.
Groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which are allowed to keep their donors secret, are required to operate "exclusively" for the promotion of social welfare. The IRS has interpreted that to mean they can’t have politics as their primary purpose, a rule that has led to disputes about the meaning of "politics" and "primary."
The investigations have found little, if any, direct evidence of political motivation or involvement from officials outside the IRS.
Instead, documents released so far show that lower-level workers were confused about what criteria they should use to sort and assess applications. They show that IRS executives tried to respond to concerns from Democratic lawmakers, among others, that groups were using 501(c)(4) status to circumvent campaign-finance disclosure laws.
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