WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing examining how the IRS lost thousands of e-mails sought by investigators turned into a shouting match Friday, with Republicans on the panel accusing the IRS commissioner of lying.
“Sitting here listening to this testimony, I don’t believe it,” Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, told the commissioner, John Koskinen, at a hearing of the Ways and Means Committee. “That’s your problem. No one believes you.”
“You ask taxpayers to hang on to seven years of their personal tax information in case they’re ever audited, and you can’t keep six months’ worth of employee e-mails?” Ryan added, referring to the agency’s practice of overwriting backup tapes.
Democrats on the committee repeatedly objected to Republicans who interrupted Koskinen before he could answer or used their time to confront Koskinen without asking a question.
“For him to take the oath and then have people suggest to him, ‘We don’t believe you,’ that is not the way this committee has functioned in the past, and it ought not to be the way we function going forward,” said Representative Richard E. Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
Koskinen, in his testimony, pointed to a report by an inspector general of the Treasury Department, the parent agency of the IRS, which concluded that while agency employees had acted improperly, there was no evidence of political motivation or outside influence.
He also said a delay in the disclosure of the lost e-mails was not indicative of a cover-up.
He submitted as evidence an e-mail exchange from 2011 between the agency’s technology staff and Lois Lerner, then an IRS official, in which she sought to have her messages restored. He said a computer crash and an effort to retrieve the lost messages had occurred before the agency was notified that Congress was receiving complaints from conservative political groups that they were being unfairly scrutinized.
Several of the Democrats called the panel’s inquiry a “witch hunt” meant to create the appearance of a conspiracy during an election year. Some of them, instead of asking their own questions, gave their time to Koskinen to respond to the Republicans’ accusations.
The Democrats also said the committee’s inquiry was missing a larger point: that political groups of all kinds were effectively getting subsidies from taxpayers as “social welfare groups,” even though they actually conducted political activities.
During the past week, the IRS has said thousands of e-mails of interest to investigators looking into suspected mistreatment of political groups by the agency had been destroyed because of computer crashes affecting seven employees. Those employees included Lerner, who has been accused of orchestrating a politically motivated effort to hold up applications for tax exemption from Tea Party groups before the 2012 election.
Republican lawmakers responded to the disclosure with incredulity, questioning whether the e-mails were truly unrecoverable and accusing the agency of a Nixonian cover-up. They have also suggested that the disappearance of the e-mails violated federal record-keeping laws.
Several Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee said that the IRS had lost credibility because of repeated denials that they claimed turned out to be wrong.
“Over three years ago, this committee started asking the IRS: Was it targeting conservatives for their beliefs, was it asking groups inappropriate questions, was it harassing conservative donors,” said Representative Dave Camp, the committee’s chairman. “The IRS assured this committee, and even testified before Congress, time and time again, that no targeting was occurring.”
He said that the IRS’ denials had since been proved untrue.
“The IRS lied to Congress and the American people,” Camp said. “In fact, this committee has found that there’s ample evidence to suggest the IRS violated the constitutional rights of taxpayers.”
He then chastised the agency for withholding information about the missing e-mails until last week, even though it had shared that information with officials at the Treasury Department weeks before then.