WASHINGTON – High drama and heated arguments marked the start of a congressional hearing hastily called Friday to look into the bombshell revelation this week that the IRS is missing tens of thousands of emails sought by investigators.
"I didn't hear an apology," said Ways and Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., after the head of the IRS delivered his opening statement.
"I don't think an apology is owed," testily shot back IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Camp vehemently disagreed.
He demanded to know why the IRS told the White House about the missing emails in April but it wasn't another six weeks, until June, that Congress found out.
"Were you purposely not revealing this to the American people?" he demanded.
"No, as I told you, our original thought was to complete the Lois Lerner email production, complete the review," and turn in the full report all at one time, Koskinen said.
"So why did the IRS inform the Executive Branch agencies, the White House, the administration, but keep it secret from the Congress, who was conducting an investigation?" Camp asked.
"We were not keeping it a secret," Koskinen claimed. "It was our public report to you that has in fact provided you this information, there's been no attempt to keep it a secret."
A furious Camp called that "completely unacceptable" and blasted both the IRS and the Obama administration.
"The public will never know full extent of the IRS abuse" because of the lost emails, he said.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., got into the most fiery exchange of the day after saying it was unbelievable that the IRS could lose six months of emails when it regularly demands seven years of records from taxpayers, and he couldn't understand why the agency waited so long to report the problem to Congress, after discovering it in February.
After listing the events that had led to Friday's hearing, an exasperated Ryan flatly told Koskinen, “I don’t believe you. This is incredible."
The IRS chief indignantly replied that, in his long career, that was the first time anyone had questioned his truthfulness.
"I don't believe you," repeated Ryan with a measured enunciation, to emphasize the point.
Just before that exchange, Ryan had said, “Nobody believes you. The Internal Revenue Service comes to us a couple years ago and misleads us and tells us no targeting is occurring. Then it said it was a few rogue agents in Cincinnati. Then it said it was also on progressives. All of those things have been proven untrue.”
“You are the Internal Revenue Service,” he said. “You can reach into the lives of hard-working taxpayers and with a phone call, an e-mail or a letter you can turn their lives upside down. You ask taxpayers to hand over seven years of their personal tax information in case they are ever audited and you can’t keep six months worth of employee e-mails?"
At one point, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., testily snapped that Ryan should let Koskinen answer a question, but Ryan yelled back, “I didn’t ask him a question!”
Chairman Camp had to call the committee to order to stop Ryan from being interrupted.
Under more intense questioning by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Koskinen repeatedly denied that the IRS misled, or lied to, Congress by waiting months to reveal so much information had been lost.
Brady cited a letter from the Treasury Department that assured Congress it would be informed of all developments promptly, and told the IRS chief that letter contradicted what he testified under oath.
"We have provided plenty of info," Koskinen attempted to rebut.
"You have provided no information," Brady shot back.
"Mr. Commissioner, why, at this point, should anyone believe you?" Brady asked. "This is the most corrupt IRS in history."
Koskinen had been summoned to explain what many consider inexplicable: how the IRS could have lost so many emails of seven people under investigation for targeting conservatives, including those emails involving the central IRS figure, fomer tax-exempt division chief Lois Lerner.
During a recess called to let committee members vote, Koskinen spoke briefly with reporters and repeatedly emphasized the IRS had already turned over 24,000 of Lerner's emails to investigators.
WND asked the IRS chief, given that all of those were internal emails sent to fellow IRS employees, could he understand why investigators would be upset if they could not obtain emails Lerner had sent to people in other departments?
Yes, "If she did," amiably replied Koskinen.
It is a fact that she made email contact with the Department of Justice (regarding the possible criminal prosecution of tea party groups for political activity), WND reminded him.
"And those other agencies will say if they received emails from her," said Koskinen.
Noting the White House had already claimed it had received no emails from Lerner, WND asked the IRS chief if he could understand why GOP committee members were so frustrated with this particular gap in the record?
"Yes," he replied, after having previously told reporters that the gap was just a small part of the total record.
Whether that gap was a critical part of the total record is what investigators are still trying to learn.
Earlier in the hearing, Camp said the only way he could see to restore trust in the IRS would be to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the agency, and asked Koskinen if he agreed.
When he began to reply that there were already there are six investigations underway, Camp cut him off and demanded, "Yes or no?"
As the IRS chief again did not answer directly, Camp again asked, "Yes or no?" causing several Democrats on the committee, whose microphones were open, to openly complain, with one saying, "What is this, the Soviet Union?"
However, Camp did get Koskinen finally to concede that he would oppose the appointment of a special prosecutor, claiming it would be a "monumental waste of taxpayers' money."
Disagreeing, Camp said investigators are "missing a huge piece of puzzle" because the lost emails are from the peak years of IRS targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
"How convenient for the IRS and the administration," the chairman challenged, saying he simply did not believe the agency has done everything to retrieve the lost information and that the tax-collecting department had now lost all credibility with the public.
"How far would an ordinary American taxpayer get with the IRS," Camp wondered, if they said they had lost their information? "Yet, somehow," he went on, "that explanation was apparently good enough for Attorney General Eric Holder," who, like the rest of the Obama administration, has repeatedly tried to "sweep under the rug" the scandal.
"It's no wonder we hear talk of a coverup," he added.
Ryan, Brady and Camp may have good reason not to believe Koskinen.
The IRS claimed to have discovered the loss of the emails in February, even though the investigation had been underway for almost a year.
In April, the IRS informed the Treasury Department, which then informed the White House.
But, without explanation, Congress and the public were not informed until this week.
At a meeting on Monday with Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Koskinen falied to inform them that the emails of six others IRS employees were missing, in addition to Lerner's.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Koskinen withheld that information even though Hatch had asked the IRS chief to formally attest that all communications had been provided to Congress.
Once news of the lost emails became public, the House Committee on Ways and Means hastily called on Koskinen to explain under oath how it could have happened.
First came the stunning news, earlier this week, that tens of thousands of Lerner's emails were gone, including those during the crucial period from 2009 to 2011, when she headed the tax-exempt division that was targeting conservative groups.
Then came word the emails of as many as six other IRS employees were also missing.
Critics said the incredible coincidence that the emails of all seven IRS employees could have been lost during the period under question defied belief.
Then came another bombshell on Wednesday, news that the hard drive on Lerner's email had been recycled and then thrown away, and all the information House investigators had sought was likely gone forever.
Until that revelation, lawmakers had assumed there was a good chance of retrieving Lerner's emails.
Camp asked Koskinen where Lerner's hard drive is today.
The IRS chief said it was his understanding the hard drive had been recycled and destroyed, causing a committee member to audibly moan in disgust.
Was it melted down? Koskinen did not know, saying that was "three years ago."
Camp said even if it had been recycled, he assumed there was a tracking system, but Koskinen claimed he was not aware if the hard drive could be identified.
After the chairman asked, Koskinen said he would provide the drive's serial number. Camp then demanded, "I want that hard drive, and the hard drive of every computer that crashed during that time."
After IT experts initially said the information could be recovered, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed the hard drive earlier this week, asking for "all hard drives, external drives, thumb drives and computers" and "all electronic communication devices the IRS issued to Lois G. Lerner."
"If the IRS truly got rid of evidence in a way that violated the Federal Records Act and ensured the FBI never got a crack at recovering files from an official claiming a Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, this is proof their whole line about 'losing' e-mails in the targeting scandal was just one more attempted deception," Issa said in a statement.
"Official records, like the e-mails of a prominent official, don't just disappear without a trace unless that was the intention."
This could lead House committees to subpoena the White House and Department of Justice for emails from Lerner.
The White House fired a pre-emptive shot Wednesday, claiming that for the time frame in which Lerner's emails are missing, there were no "direct" communications with Lerner.
One of the employees whose emails are missing may be as critical to the investigation as Lerner.
The Daily Caller reported that was Nikole Flax, chief of staff to former IRS commissioner Steven Miller, and that she colluded with Lerner to target conservatives and visited the White House frequently while the targeting was under way.
According to White House visitor logs, Flax made 31 visits to the White House between July 12, 2010, and May 8, 2013, beginning when the IRS targeting program began, and ending just two days before the IRS scandal broke on May 10, 2013.
On May 8, 2013, Lerner sent Flax an email regarding a plan to coordinate with the Department of Justice to criminally prosecute conservatives.
The IRS has been able to retrieve about 24,000 of Lerner's emails sent to other IRS employees by recovering them from the recipients.
But, Koskinen claimed the IRS wouldn't be able to find emails Lerner sent outside the agency.
That is significant because Lerner discussed, with a member of the Justice Department, the possibility of targeting conservatives with criminal charges for their political activities.
Just weeks before the 2010 elections, Richard Pilger, an official with the Justice Department’s Election Crimes Branch, spoke with Lerner.
“At the very least, this information suggests that the IRS considered the political speech activities of nonprofits to be worthy of investigation by federal law-enforcement officials,” wrote Issa and Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in a letter to Koskinen.
Issa and 16 committee members sent a letter to Holder asking the Justice Department to produce documents to explain why his agency would consider prosecution of tax-exempt groups already improperly targeted by the IRS.
The committee said the DOJ considered prosecuting conservative groups for actions that are actually legal for 501(c)(4) nonprofits under federal tax law – that is, engaging in political speech.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth