By ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Justice Department investigation into the Internal Revenue Service has expanded to include an inquiry into the disappearance of emails from a former senior IRS official.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole was to update Congress on Thursday about the department's investigation into whether the agency targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. He also was expected to tell members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that investigators now were looking into emails that went missing from the computer of Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS division that deals with tax-exempt organizations.
The IRS has said it lost the emails in 2011 when Lerner's computer crashed.
Lerner, who refused to answer questions at two House committee hearings, has become a central figure in several congressional investigations into the handling of applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups. At both hearings, Lerner cited her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. In May, the Republican-led House voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify.
Lerner's attorney, William Taylor III, declined to comment Wednesday.
The disclosure by Lerner in May 2013 that the IRS had engaged in "inappropriate" targeting of conservatives set off a political firestorm that continues to flare this election year. And Wednesday's revelation that investigators were broadening their inquiry to include the missing emails comes as Republican members of Congress accuse the Obama administration of not cooperating with their investigation and failing to take the matter seriously enough. They have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate, which he has resisted.
"The IRS investigation was launched by the department without hesitation and immediately after Ms. Lerner publicly acknowledged the potential misconduct," Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement. The probe remains a top priority for the department, she said.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has said that he has seen no evidence anyone committed a crime when the agency lost emails. He said that there was no evidence Lerner intentionally destroyed the missing emails and that the IRS was going to great lengths trying to retrieve lost documents on Lerner's computer, even sending it to the agency's forensic lab.
In 2011, the IRS had a policy of backing up emails on computer tapes, but the tapes were recycled every six months, Koskinen told Congress. He said Lerner's hard drive was recycled after technicians in the agency's forensics lab tried unsuccessfully to restore it.
Two federal judges in Washington last week ordered the IRS to explain how it lost a trove of emails to and from Lerner.