Watchdog reveals evidence was destroyed during probe of IRS targeting

The lead government watchdog for the IRS revealed Thursday that computer evidence was erased during the investigation into the agency’s targeting scandal, months after the IRS was told to preserve documents.

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J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that IRS employees erased computer backup tapes shortly after officials discovered thousands of emails related to the tax agency’s Tea Party scandal had been lost.

As many as 24,000 emails were lost because 422 backup tapes were “magnetically erased” around March 4, 2014.

George said his office found no direct evidence the tapes were destroyed to hide information from Congress or law enforcement. But the destruction nevertheless defied a preservation order, and is sure to raise suspicions over motive.

“We have been misled. There has been evidence that has been destroyed,” committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Thursday.

George said those tapes “likely contained” 2010 and 2011 emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner, who has emerged as a central figure in congressional investigations. He said they will “most likely never be recovered.”

A source familiar with the matter told Fox News the evidence was destroyed 10 months after a preservation order for the emails; seven months after a subpoena; and one month after IRS officials realized there were potential problems locating certain emails.

Fox News is told the destruction of evidence also occurred about three weeks before IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified to Congress that they would provide documents to Congress.

Further, the IG review found that the IRS never looked at five of the six potential places where the emails might have been stored — including the server.

An IRS spokeswoman told the Associated Press Wednesday evening the agency had no immediate comment.

George set off a firestorm in May 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents improperly singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Several hundred groups had their applications delayed for a year or more. Some were asked inappropriate questions about donors and group activities, the inspector general’s report said.

Lerner used to head the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. In June 2014, the IRS told Congress it had lost an unknown number of Lerner’s emails when her computer hard drive crashed in 2011.

The IRS had discovered that the emails were lost in February 2014. A total of 422 computer backup tapes were erased a month later, George said in his testimony, and those tapes probably contained additional Lerner emails.

The IRS says it has produced 78,000 Lerner emails, many of which have been made public by congressional investigators. IRS officials said no more could be recovered. George, however, said the IRS never examined backup tapes that ultimately produced more than 1,000 additional emails.

George started investigating the lost emails last year after the IRS announced they were destroyed. His testimony before the Oversight Committee summarized the results of the investigation.

George says the workers who erased the computer tapes were unaware of a 2013 directive from the agency’s chief technology officer to halt the destruction of email backup tapes.

“The investigation uncovered testimony and e-mail traffic between IRS employees that indicate that the involved employees did not know about, comprehend or follow the chief technology officer’s May 22, 2013, e-mail directive to halt the destruction of e-mail backup media due to ‘the current environment’ and ongoing investigations,” George says in his written testimony.

After George’s initial report, much of the agency’s top leadership was forced to retire or resign, including Lerner. The Justice Department and several congressional committees launched investigations.

Lerner emerged as a central figure in the controversy after she refused to answer questions at two House Oversight hearings, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself at both hearings. At the first hearing, Lerner made a statement saying she had done nothing wrong.

Last year, the House voted mostly along party lines to hold her in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at the hearings. The U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia declined to prosecute her.

Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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