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Investigators probing for criminal activity with Lois Lerner’s missing emails

Federal investigators are looking for possible criminal activity in connection with the missing emails of Lois Lerner, a central figure in the Internal Revenue service’s targeting scandal.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration testified at congressional hearing on Thursday that it tracked down emails from the ex-IRS official’s account dating back to 2001, which is about 10 years beyond what the IRS has said it could access for investigators.

The inspector general’s office said it found about 33,000 unique emails and is working to identify which messages, if any, the IRS has not already sent to congressional investigators, who are examining the Lerner’s involvement in the IRS targeting scandal.

The watchdog agency found the emails on backup tapes after consulting with IRS information-technology specialists, according to TIGTA Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Tim Camus.

“They were right where you would expect them to be,” he said at the late-night hearing with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which adjourned at about 10 p.m.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress last year that the backups were no help in recovering Lerner’s lost emails, in part because the IRS overwrites them every six months.

According to Camus, the IRS’s technology specialists told investigators that no one from the agency asked for the tapes. His comments raised doubts about whether the IRS did its due diligence in trying to locate Lerner’s emails, or possibly greater troubles.

“There is potential criminal activity,” Camus said.

TIGTA stressed that its investigation is ongoing and cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

Koskinen testified last year that the IRS lost years worth of Lerner’s emails after her laptop’s hard drive crashed in June 2011. He said the IRS erased and recycled the device after trying unsuccessfully to recover the data.

Republicans at the hearing questioned why the IRS took two months to determine that it could not recover the missing records when the inspector general’s office managed to find the backup tapes and the emails dating back to 2001 in about two weeks.

RELATED: A timeline of the IRS’s missing emails

MORE: Here’s what the IRS told a federal court about Lois Lerner’s hard drive

Koskinen acknowledged last year that the inspector general’s office was reviewing the circumstances surrounding Lerner’s hard-drive crash and the missing emails, but Thursday marked the first time that the office said it was specifically conducting a criminal probe.

Lerner headed an IRS division that deals with tax-exempt organizations until September 2013. She stepped down months after TIGTA released a report saying the agency had targeted certain nonprofit advocacy groups for extra scrutiny based on their names and policy positions, in addition to subjecting the organizations to inappropriate questions.

Republicans have said the actions were part of an Obama administration plot to stifle conservative groups during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Right-leaning  organizations bore the brunt of the IRS’s actions.

The IRS has said it was dealing with a rapidly growing number of tax-exemption applications from nonprofit advocacy groups and was trying to find a simple way of screening for those that might be violating federal guidelines.

Democrats have pointed out that a small number progressive groups were also affected by the targeting. They claim GOP lawmakers are trying to smear the Obama administration.

“Despite multiple claims by Republicans, there is simply no evidence after nearly two years of investigating to support this wholly unsubstantiated conspiracy theory,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the oversight committee, said at Thursday’s hearing.

The White House has denied playing any role in targeting scandal.

Lerner refused to testify at two congressional hearings about the matter in 2013 and 2014. She and her lawyer have repeatedly rejected the notion that she did anything illegal.

After congressional investigators subpoenaed Lerner’s emails, the IRS said many of the records were missing, along with those of some of the ex-official’s colleagues. Nonetheless, the agency has handed over thousands of messages from her account that were not lost.

In testimony last year, Koskinen said he learned of the hard-drive crash in February 2014. He said the agency didn’t know that the data was unrecoverable until April of that year, at which point someone at the IRS told the White House about the issue.

The IRS waited until June 2014 to tell Congress about the missing emails. Koskinen testified that he did not tip off the White House before informing Congress, adding that he did not know who told the White House about the issue.

Thursday’s hearing took place on the same day Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a senior member of the oversight committee, proposed legislation to classify IRS discrimination as a felony.