Watchdog: IRS erased backups after loss of tea party emails

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- IRS employees erased computer backup tapes a month after officials discovered that thousands of emails related to the tax agency's tea party scandal had been lost, according to government investigators.

The investigators, however, concluded that employees erased the tapes by mistake, not as part of an attempt to destroy evidence.

As many as 24,000 emails were lost because 422 backup tapes were erased, according to J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

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Watchdog: IRS erased backups after loss of tea party emails
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., grills Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen as he testifies before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers continue their probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Lois Lerner emails obtained from the House Ways and Means Committee are displayed in Washington, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. A former IRS official at the heart of the agency's tea party controversial called Republicans "crazies" and more in newly released emails. Lois Lerner used to head the IRS division that handles applications for tax-exempt status. In a series of emails with a colleague in November 2012, Lerner made two disparaging remarks about members of the GOP, including one remark that was profane. Republican Rep. Dave Camp, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, released the emails Wednesday as part of his committee's investigation. Camp says the emails show Lerner's disgust with conservatives. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
FILE - In this March 5, 2014, file photo, former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Justice Department is investigating the circumstances behind the disappearance of emails from Lerner, part of a broader criminal inquiry into whether the agency had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, according to congressional testimony released Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers continue their probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from several officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen testifies under subpoena before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers continue their probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from several officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, joined at left by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member, leads the questioning of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen as lawmakers continue their probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen is sworn in before the House Oversight Committee as lawmakers continue their probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, grills Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen as the House Oversight Committee continues its probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 23, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind, attacks the excuse given by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that it has lost more emails connected to a tea party investigation, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - This March 5, 2014 file photo shows former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. A federal judge is ordering the IRS to explain _ under oath _ how it lost a trove of emails to and from a central figure in the agency's tea party controversy. U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan gave the tax agency a month to submit the explanation in writing. Sullivan issued the order Thursday as part of a freedom of information lawsuit by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group. The IRS says it lost the emails in 2011 when Lois Lerner’s computer crashed. At the time, Lerner headed the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
House Oversight Committee member Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. waves a copy of an emailed document addressed to IRS official Lois Lerner as he joined with committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in demanding that Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen provide all of Lerner’s emails as the panel’s GOP majority continues the probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, Wednesday, March 26, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., chairman of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, drills Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen as the full committee continues its probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014. Listening at left is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation who has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers' questions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen talks to reporters during a break in his appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee on their continuing probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation who has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers' questions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., chairman of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, listens as Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen tesifies to the full committee in its probe of whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014. Listening at left is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation who has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers' questions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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The revelation is likely to fuel conspiracy theories among conservatives who say the IRS has obstructed congressional investigations into the scandal.

George is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee Thursday morning about his investigation into the emails. The Associated Press obtained a copy of his prepared testimony.

An IRS spokeswoman said 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.

The lost emails were to and from Lois Lerner, who 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 says in his testimony.

At the time, IRS officials said the emails could not be recovered.

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

The IRS says it has produced 78,000 Lerner emails, many of which have been made public by congressional investigators.

George says his investigators were able to recover more than 1,000 additional Lerner emails. However, he said, as many as 24,000 emails were destroyed when IRS employees erased the computer tapes.

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.

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