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WASHINGTON – In perhaps the most explosive exchange yet in the IRS hearings, a key GOP lawmaker essentially accused the head of the IRS of lying to Congress to cover up the scandal.
At issue was why IRS Commissioner John Koskinen had waited from April until June before informing Congress that two years of Lois Lerner's emails had been lost and that her hard drive had crashed.
“My theory is this, Mr. Koskinen, you guys weren’t ever gonna tell us until we caught you," House Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pointedly told Koskinen.
"And we caught you because Judicial Watch did a FOIA request," he added.
The line of questioning began with Jordan asking, "Why didn't you tell us in April? Why'd you wait two months?"
The IRS chief said his motive was to first produce all of Lerner's emails that the agency possessed.
So, Jordan wondered, why did the IRS reveal Lerner's hard drive had supposedly crashed, causing the loss of two years of emails, to the Senate Finance Committee on June 13? Why not some other date?
After Koskinen said something to the effect that the occasion seemed right, Jordan countered sharply: "I think it is something different. I think you were never going to tell us."
Jordan said he believed the IRS was forced to make the revelation after learning the Oversight Committee had obtained a 2010 email between Lerner and Justice Department attorney Tony Pilger in which they discussed the possibility of criminally prosecuting conservative groups.
Jordan said the IRS learned June 9 that congressional investigators had obtained that email.
"Then, suddenly, four days later, on June 13, you tell the Finance Committee" about Lerner's missing emails, Jordan said.
That's when the Ohio congressman suggested the IRS chief was "never going to tell us until you got caught."
Jordan said he believed the only reason the IRS revealed the missing emails is because it had to confess it had lost its version of the crucial email between Pilger and Lerner.
Logical people would conclude, the subcommittee chairman said, that is what made Koskinen decide "we'd better come clean."
Koskinen bristled at the explosive charge that he had participated in a cover-up.
His voice rising, the commissioner retorted, "When you find evidence to support that, I'd like to see it."
Struggling a bit to regain his composure, he maintained, "If you think we could produce a report in four days, you don't know how a large organization functions."
Jordan calmly replied that he didn't think the IRS put together the report in four days.
"I think you just stuck it into the report," he said, suggesting the IRS thinking was, "They got us, we better come clean."
Koskinen shot back: "Can I respond to that? That's a serious charge. If you find any such evidence, I'll be astounded. Before you make that kind of charge and claim, you ought to have better evidence than a single email dated June 9."
Jordan said he was just pointing out the "timing is pretty suspect," because the IRS had just discovered investigators were getting emails from the Justice Department they weren't getting from the tax agency.
“In light of everything we’ve heard from the IRS, when you start looking at the timeline, it looks pretty suspect,” explained Jordan.
“And all I’m saying is, I’m not sure they were gonna tell us.”
Later, Jordan further hammered the point home.
He said IRS Deputy Associate Chief Counsel Thomas Kane told the committee that senior IRS leadership first became concerned about the possibility of missing emails from Lerner on Feb. 2 and confirmed a hard drive crash only two days later.
Yet, Jordan pointed out, "you come to Congress" three times after that without informing investigators about the missing emails, "and we're supposed to buy that? C'mon."
Even before the exchanges, GOP lawmakers had said the evidence now shows it is a mathematical near-certainty that the IRS has been engaged in a cover-up.
At the opening of Wednesday's hearing, Jordan expressed exasperation that the IRS story has gone from reporting the crash of just Lerner's hard drive to seven or eight hard-drive crashes and, now, as many as 20 crashes of hard drives belonging to IRS personnel under investigation.
Calling it "unbelievable," Jordan noted the committee has now learned that almost a fourth of the IRS people under investigation may have had hard-drive crashes.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif, said it was now clear there was a "convenient loss of data by far more people than is explained by the relevant math formulas."
Under questioning by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Koskinen said he was told the industry average for hard drive crashes is 2 to 5 percent.
Meadows asked if it would be an anomaly if just the seven previously reported hard drive crashes had occurred, and the commissioner was compelled to agree that, yes, it would.
The GOP committee leaders, frustrated by what they see as an IRS cover-up and a Justice Department that refuses to investigate, are clearly attempting to build a case for having a special prosecutor take over the investigation into the IRS scandal.
While currently defending his department before Congress, Koskinen could end up defending himself against criminal charges in court if investigators conclude he failed to inform Congress of Lerner's missing emails in a timely manner, as he was required to do.
Subcommittee ranking member Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., asked the IRS commissioner whether the DOJ had told him if he is under investigation for not informing Congress of the missing emails promptly.
Koskinen said no.
GOP committee members have raised that prospect because Koskinen did not inform Congress of Lerner's missing emails and her hard drive crash until late June, although he learned of it in April, and someone in the IRS informed the White House that same month.
Koskinen's testimony follows a dizzying series of revelations in the preceding days about Lerner's missing hard drive, two years of missing emails and other possible hard-drive crashes.
Lerner, the former head of the IRS tax-exempt division who has admitted her unit improperly targeted conservative groups, claimed she lost two years of emails in a critical time period for the investigation, from mid-2009 to mid-2011, after her hard drive supposedly crashed.
On Friday, WND broke the news that IRS personnel had sworn under oath to a federal judge that the agency could not say with certainty what happened to the hard drive, but that it probably had been destroyed.
On Monday, Issa revealed that an IRS lawyer had recently testified in a closed session that it was possible back-up tapes of Lerner's email might exist, contrary to what Koskinen told the committee last month.
Then, on Tuesday, House Ways and Means Committee investigators said Lerner's hard drive may have only been scratched, not irreparably damaged, as Koskinen had said.
It was not clear if the scratch was deliberate or accidental.
And, after interviewing an IT analyst who worked on Lerner's hard drive, House investigators revealed it might have been possible for outside forensic technicians to recover some information from her computer.
“The committee was told no data was recoverable and the physical drive was recycled and potentially shredded. To now learn that the hard drive was only scratched, yet the IRS refused to utilize outside experts to recover the data, raises more questions about potential criminal wrong doing at the IRS,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan said on Tuesday
That committee also has doubts about the declaration under oath the IRS recently filed in federal court, which said it tried to recover data but the hard drive's information was destroyed.
The committee said an internal IT tracking system had listed Lerner's hard drive as "recovered" at one point. Investigators said an IRS employee interviewed by the committee was unable to explain the discrepancy.
Also on Tuesday, Issa called for Deputy Attorney General James Cole to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate why Koskinen delayed informing Congress and the Department of Justice, or DOJ, about the destruction of critical evidence to congressional and criminal investigations.
The committee also revealed new testimony by IRS attorney Thomas Kane that senior IRS leadership first became concerned about the possibility of Lois Lerner's emails on Feb. 2 and confirmed a hard drive crash only two days later.
It was Kane who also revealed that up to 20 IRS hard drives may have crashed.
Last week, Cole testified the DOJ is investigating the delay by the IRS in alerting other agencies that they had lost former IRS official Lois Lerner’s emails.
“The Committee has obtained information that senior IRS leadership knew in February 2014 that e-mails on Ms. Lerner’s hard drive were unrecoverable,” Issa and Jordan wrote.
“The IRS’ failure to disclose in a timely manner that it had destroyed evidence critical to congressional and criminal investigations is further reason that a special prosecutor is needed to thoroughly and independently investigate all facets of the IRS targeting.”
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCGarth