Justice official as curious as GOP about why IRS didn’t mention lost e-mails

A top Justice Department official on Thursday said he wants the Internal Revenue Service to explain why it waited two months to tell investigators about Lois Lerner’s missing e-mails, testifying that his agency learned about the matter through media reports long after the IRS claims to have discovered the problem.

“This is a matter where, obviously, we’d like to know about the loss of the e-mails,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole, answering questions before the House subcommittee on economic growth, job creation and regulatory affairs.


Deputy Attorney General James Cole testified on Capitol Hill Thursday. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who chairs the panel, asked whether the delay was suspicious. Cole replied that he didn’t have enough information to make that determination.

“I would like to know all the circumstances from [IRS Commissioner John Koskinen] as to why there was the two-month wait before I answer whether it’s a big deal,” Cole said. The Justice Department is investigating the matter, he said.

Cole also testified that the FBI made virtually no use of a massive trove of information about tax-exempt groups that the IRS  gave to the agency in 2010, around the same time the IRS was targeting groups for extra scrutiny based on their names and policy positions.

The database contained 1.1 million pages of information on tax-exempt organizations, some of which was private and protected by federal law from disclosure. The IRS has said that only 33 out of the 12,000 records shared with the FBI included nonpublic information and that most of the groups didn’t appear to have any connection to political activity.

Cole said FBI analysts only viewed the index of the database and that the agency never used the records for an investigation.

Thursday’s hearing focused on the Justice Department’s response to the IRS targeting. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered a probe of the matter in May 2013, but Republicans have suggested that the Justice Department is essentially feigning its investigation.

“Here we are now, 14 months later, and we’ve heard virtually nothing from the administration about its criminal investigation,” Jordan said.

Republicans have also suggested that Lerner, a former official who led the IRS’s tax-exemption division, collaborated with the FBI and other federal agencies in a campaign to quiet conservative groups during the last two election cycles.

Lerner’s actions at the IRS have fed those suspicions. For instance, internal e-mails show that she helped transmit the database to the FBI. She also disclosed in an e-mail to a Federal Election Commission lawyer that a conservative group under investigation by the FEC at the time had not been approved for tax-exempt status.

Federal law prohibits the release of information about pending applications for tax exemption and organizations that have been denied — only those that have been approved can be revealed publicly. Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, has said his client didn’t disclose anything the FEC lawyer couldn’t have learned by checking a publicly available list of approved groups.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticized Republicans at the hearing for repeatedly rekindling the IRS targeting controversy.

“This is not the basis of a White House scandal,” he said. “This is the latest example of Republicans desperately searching for one, and then using any excuse they can to manipulate the facts until they no longer have any resemblance to the truth.”

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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