WASHINGTON – Investigators are blaming two IRS workers at a computer center in West Virginia for erasing thousands of emails related to the tax agency's tea party scandal, impeding congressional investigations into the treatment of conservative political groups.
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The workers might be incompetent, a lead investigator said Thursday, but there is no evidence they were part of a criminal conspiracy to destroy evidence.
House Republicans were incredulous.
"It just defies any sense of logic," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It gets to the point where it truly gets to be unbelievable. Somebody has to be held accountable."
J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified before the committee and was joined by one of his deputies, Timothy Camus.
Camus said two "lower-graded" employees at the IRS center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, erased 422 computer backup tapes that contained as many as 24,000 emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner. The tapes were erased in March 2014, months after congressional investigators requested all of Lerner's emails.
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Lerner has emerged as a central figure in congressional investigations into the treatment of conservative groups when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Camus said the workers did not fully understand an IRS directive not to destroy email backup tapes. He did not name the workers.
"When interviewed, those employees said, 'Our job is to put these pieces of plastic into that machine and magnetically obliterate them. We had no idea that there was any type of preservation (order) from the chief technology officer,'" Camus told the committee.
Camus said interviews, sworn statements and a review of the employees' emails turned up no evidence that they were trying to destroy evidence.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., asked Camus if incompetence was to blame for the tapes being erased.
"One could come to that conclusion," Camus said.
In a statement, the IRS said it repeatedly alerted employees starting in May 2013 that they must save all emails, computer tapes and other records related to investigations by Congress and the Justice Department.
"The IRS recognizes there was a clear breakdown of communication in one part of the organization regarding the need to preserve and retain the backup tapes and information, although (the inspector general) concluded this wasn't intentional," the statement said.
George is an independent investigator who was nominated by former President George W. Bush. He has been investigating Lerner's lost emails for about a year. He is expected to issue a report as early as next week. He and Camus summarized the report's findings at Thursday's hearing.
George set off a firestorm in 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents based in a Cincinnati office were improperly singling out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
After George's report, much of the IRS's top leadership was forced to retire or resign, including Lerner. The Justice Department and several congressional committees launched investigations, which continue.
Lerner used to head the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status.
Congressional investigators have shown that IRS officials in Washington knew that tea party applications were being singled out for delay. But they have not disclosed any evidence that anyone outside the IRS knew about the targeting or directed it.
Investigators were hoping that Lerner's lost emails would advance their probe. George said his office was able to uncover more than 1,000 new Lerner emails, but none was relevant to the investigation.
"This investigation has squandered tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in a failed scavenger hunt for any possible evidence to support wild Republican accusations against Lois Lerner, the IRS, and the White House," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat.
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