Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen faces tough questioning Friday from Congress about lost emails belonging to the protagonist in the scandal over inappropriate targeting of conservative organizations.
Members of the House Ways and Means Committee will grill him about when he and others knew that the computer hard drive of then-IRS division chief Lois Lerner had mysteriously crashed, losing key information long sought by Congress and the news media.
Koskinen also will be hauled before before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Monday. That panel has subpoenaed phones, thumb drives and all electronic storage devices that belonged to Lerner during her time at the IRS.
In February, Koskinen promised to provide congressional committees of jurisdiction with all the emails from Lerner, who headed the Exempt Organizations division of the IRS until she was placed on administrative leave last year and refused to testify before Congress, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. She oversaw a process in which the IRS made it harder for some conservative groups to win special tax-exempt status.
Late last Friday, the IRS said in a statement that the hard drive on Lerner's computer at work had "crashed" and the information it contained couldn't be recovered. The detailed explanation the IRS provided to the friendlier Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee raised more questions than it answered.
Adding to a growing scandal, several Republican lawmakers said this week that they'd been told that several other top-level IRS officials also had reported hard-drive crashes and unrecoverable material. One of them was Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to former acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller, whom President Barack Obama fired last year as the scandal unfolded.
"John Koskinen has a lot of explaining to do. He hasn't just failed to restore a pre-targeting-scandal level of public trust in the IRS, but things have actually gotten worse under his watch," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the oversight committee, told McClatchy.
"Congress made it abundantly clear to him that all of Lois Lerner's emails were the top priority. Waiting a year to tell us the IRS destroyed that evidence doesn't mesh well with claims that this was an innocent mistake and they're working hard to cooperate."
The office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told McClatchy on Thursday that Koskinen had told the senator Monday that he'd learned about the lost emails three weeks ago, but the IRS commissioner did not say why he didn't immediately inform Congress.
The IRS told Hatch, his office said, that the emails had been backed up to a computer tape that's since been wiped clean, part of the usual recycling process within the agency.
"The agency that requires the American people to preserve its documents for three years only saves its emails for six months," Hatch said Thursday on the Senate floor.
Issa hoped to subpoena the IRS to force a handover of Lerner's hard drive for forensic inspection, but the agency says it's long been discarded.
"The White House – the president called this a phony scandal, yet who could possibly believe that they've lost two critical years' worth of emails for the central figure in this investigation," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, lamented Thursday.
To some experts in the field of data recovery, it looks suspicious.
"If you are getting a subpoena, and trying to get someone's computer or smartphone, and it crashed, it just poses a red flag to me on a high-profile case," said Giovanni Masucci, the president of National Digital Forensics Inc. in Raleigh, N.C.
He added, "In high-profile divorce cases, we see things getting destroyed all the time. There should still be the opportunity to recover the data."
The White House said the emails in question were from a period between 2009 and 2011, and the reported hard-drive crash happened well before the IRS scandal broke in the spring of 2013.
"Nonetheless, the IRS has or will produce 24,000 Lerner emails from this 2009-2011 time period, largely from the files of the other 82 individuals," spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, adding that the White House had searched for emails between staff and Lerner in that period. "We found zero emails _ sorry to disappoint _ between Lois Lerner and anyone within" the White House during that period.
Experts who advise corporations on record keeping say the IRS purge of emails after six-month cycles doesn't sound out of the ordinary.
"I generally advise my clients to retain documents for five years," said Patricia Howze, an expert witness in human resources litigation from Mill Valley, Calif. But for large corporations, much like the IRS, electronic email storage beyond six months is rare because it's expensive, she said.
The missing IRS emails are part of a larger problem of inadequate data storage in government, said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
"What surprised me most is that everybody's surprised," said Sloan, whose group documented a similar disappearance of emails in the Justice Department involving the so-called torture memos and at the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding fraudster Bernie Madoff. "It is surprising that the only management system (at the IRS) was backup tapes, and nobody bothered to use the backup tapes."
But the problem is across the federal government, she said.
"I think there is a wider problem in records management, a lack of standardization, a lack of training, a lack of enforcement and really a lack of political will," Sloan said. "It's expensive to update your records-management system."
By Kevin G. Hall
McClatchy Washington Bureau