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Missing IRS emails prompt cover-up allegations from Republican lawmakers

June 24, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
A political fight over the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service escalated when the IRS said it had lost thousands of emails when a former official’s computer crashed. Jeffrey Brown talks to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., about the allegations that the emails may have been intentionally destroyed.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The political fight over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups got a lot more heated over the past few days. The IRS says it lost two years’ worth of e-mails from a former official at the heart of the scandal.

In two congressional hearings over the past four days, Republicans on Capitol Hill have lashed out at IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, alleging a cover-up at the highest levels. Koskinen joined the agency six months ago after it found itself embroiled in the controversy.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif., Chair, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: Would you please rise to take the oath? Raise your right hand. A little higher. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even the oath-taking seemed contentious last night, as IRS Commissioner John Koskinen appeared before the House Oversight Committee.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: We have a problem with you and you have a problem with maintaining your credibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: At issue, lost e-mails from former IRS official Lois Lerner. She resigned last year after disclosures that her division targeted Tea Party and other groups for reviews before the 2012 election.

The controversy revived this month when the IRS reported thousands of Lerner’s e-mails vanished when her computer crashed in 2011. California Republican Darrell Issa chaired last night’s hearing.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: So, you told us that all e-mails would be provided. When you discovered that all e-mails wouldn’t be provided, you didn’t come back and inform us. Is that correct?

JOHN KOSKINEN, Commissioner, IRS: All the e-mails we have will be provided. I didn’t say I would provide you e-mails that disappeared. If you have a magical way for me to do that, I would be happy to know about it. I said I would provide all the e-mails. We are providing all the e-mails.

JEFFREY BROWN: Koskinen had an equally testy exchange with Ohio Republican Michael Turner, who pressed for an FBI investigation.

JOHN KOSKINEN: I reject the suggestion that my integrity depends upon my calling the FBI. The inspector general will issue a report. We will all get the benefit of that report. And then we can determine what the appropriate action is…

REP. MICHAEL TURNER, R, Ohio: I have always believed that what happened in your agency with Lois Lerner is a crime. I believe that there were others involved. I believe the e-mails that are missing are the ones that would probably give us an ability to establish that. And I believe that somebody undertook criminal act in its destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Things were even more heated Friday at a Ways and Means Committee hearing, when Republican Paul Ryan accused Koskinen of lying.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R, Wis.: This is a pattern of abuse, a pattern of behavior that is not giving us any confidence that this agency is being impartial.

JOHN KOSKINEN: I have a long career. That’s the first time anybody has said they do not believe me. I am…

REP. PAUL RYAN: I don’t believe you.

JOHN KOSKINEN: That’s fine. We can have a disagreement. I am willing to stand on our record.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democrats charge Republicans are simply out to score political points.

This was Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings last night.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D, Md.: Republicans have been trying desperately and unsuccessfully for more than a year to link this scandal to the White House.

Rather than continue on this path, I sincerely hope that we will turn to constructive legislation with concrete solutions to help federal agencies run more effectively and efficiently.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Oversight Committee reconvened this morning with the government’s top archivist, David Ferriero. Michigan Republican Tim Walberg cited a law requiring the IRS to report the lost e-mails much earlier.

REP. TIM WALBERG, R, Mich.: Did they break the law?

DAVID FERRIERO, Archivist of the United States: I’m not a lawyer.

REP. TIM WALBERG: Well, you administer — you administer the Federal Records Act.

DAVID FERRIERO: I do.

REP. TIM WALBERG: If they didn’t follow it, can we safely assume they broke the law?

DAVID FERRIERO: They didn’t follow the law.

JEFFREY BROWN: The panel also heard from Jennifer O’Connor, a White House counsel who worked at the IRS for six months last year. She appeared after being subpoenaed.

Away from the hearing, House Speaker John Boehner said it’s clear the White House is not cooperating. He told reporters — quote — “They haven’t done a damn thing to help get to the truth.”

And with us now are two members of Congress who’ve taken part in these hearings, Sander Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and John Mica, a Florida Republican who serves on the House Oversight Committee.

Well, Congressman Mica, let’s start with you and let’s start with the e-mails. Do you and other Republicans believe they were intentionally destroyed? Is there solid evidence to that effect?

REP. JOHN MICA, R, Fla.: We honestly don’t know, and that’s the reason we called in the commissioner, called him back.

When he testified in March to Government Reform and Oversight, he never cited any technical problems. And everyone, Republican and Democrat, said we just want the e-mails from Lois Lerner. They hadn’t been produced. I think everyone was equally shocked, both in Congress and across the country, that that information was either destroyed or missing. We don’t know how it occurred.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Congressman Levin, were you shocked? Because you said this was a — you said it was an equipment failure. But what about the questions about the timing and when we learned about it and why there were no backups?

REP. SANDER LEVIN, D, Mich.: I’m not sure what the issue is regarding backups, what the IRS had at the time.

I think it’s clear there has to be a better job within IRS, but throughout this government. There’s zero, zero evidence that there was any intentional effort by Lois Lerner or by anybody else. And at our hearing, there was dragged out a letter from Dave Camp going back to 2011, and the claim was that she was tipped off and therefore the implication is that she destroyed her computer.

It turned out that letter had nothing to do with the inappropriate criteria that were being used. They were inappropriate, and I said right at the beginning when we found out about it that they should be, Lerner and Miller, relieved of their duties.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John Mica, this has become very personal. And John Koskinen came in just six months ago. Why is — why is he the target and to what extent is much of this, as Democrats would have it, an attempt to tie the White House to the IRS?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, first of all, we don’t know. And we just learned within a matter of days again about the destruction of the tapes.

It’s not 18 minutes, like in the Nixon White House with Rose Mary Woods. This is 27 months. We have learned in the last few days, a matter of hours, too, that there was a backup system. I don’t know how much information they have. Unfortunately, that backup system which was in place I think from 2005 to what we have learned to about 2011, I believe, in the time frame that, again, some of this came down, that company was terminated right at about the time that some of this all, again, occurred.

So we’re going to see if there is backup information. We’re going to find out who, if anyone, was responsible for what happened to the tapes. We don’t know. Again, I think the whole country was stunned just a few days ago to find out that this information had crashed or disappeared.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sander Levin, for your side, the charge has been that the IRS, including John Koskinen, as well as the administration, have never really addressed the larger matter behind all this, the question of targeting conservative groups, that it’s been treated as a minor matter.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: That’s not true at all.

By the way, you mentioned the efforts to tie this to the White House. That’s what Mr. Mica, Dave Camp, Senator Hatch and others, they have talked about. Dave Camp at the hearing, this first hearing, talked about a culture of cover-up within the administration. Zero evidence of that, and there never has been such evidence.

And we never said that the use of these inappropriate criteria, that that use was minor. Indeed, as I said earlier, I was among the first to say that those in responsible positions should be relieved of their responsibilities.

No, there were inappropriate criteria. They applied both to liberal and conservative organizations, more to conservative organizations, because they had filed many more applications for 501(c)(4). And there is a legitimate concern about the use of 501(c)(4)s, because they’re supposed to relate to social welfare predominantly, and you have today out in the public the use of 501(c)(4)s for essentially political purposes.

From 2006 to 2012, in 2006, there was a million dollars used reported to the FEC for political purposes by 501(c)(4). That jumped to $250 million by 2012. Half of it came from Karl Rove and Koch brother organizations.

So there’s a legitimate concern, but we never said that the use of these criteria, inappropriately so, was minor. We never said that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Congressman Mica briefly, if you could, is that larger issue being lost in all this, the question about which organizations should qualify for tax-exempt status?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, that’s a question for the Ways and Means Committee and our tax code.

But the question here was the targeting. An independent review was done by the inspector general of Treasury, independent, and he found that they were targeting here conservative groups. Now, whether you’re targeting conservative or progressive or liberal groups, that’s not right, and that’s part of what I think the investigation has boiled down to.

People hold IRS in trust because it’s our chief financial revenue agent, and everybody wants to be treated fair by them. And to have them close down some political groups, no matter what their persuasion, before the election and drag out, again, the processing them, and then going after them — just on Mr. Levin’s point about the White House, the only thing I have said on the White House is the different inconsistencies.

The commissioner at the time told us he only was at the White House for the Easter egg roll, and then we found out he had gone over a hundred times.

REP. JOHN MICA: We also know, again, that the White House counsel and certain people in the White House were aware with what was going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

REP. JOHN MICA: So, we’re not — again, we don’t have any clear evidence because we haven’t completed the investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mr. Levin, a brief last word from you, very brief, please.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: They say there’s no evidence and then they make charges.

They talk about a culture of cover-up. They talk about a White House enemies list. There’s been zero, zero proof of that. And they continue this desperate effort to connect this to the White House.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: And they should stop. This shouldn’t be an inquisition, these hearings.

REP. JOHN MICA: … stop a long time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sander Levin and John Mica, thank you both very much.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Thank you.