E-mails released Wednesday by the House Oversight Committee show that disgraced Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner warned her colleagues about communicating via e-mail when Congress began investigating the agency’s targeting of right-leaning groups.
Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, called the e-mails the “smoking gun” in the IRS scandal, which his committee has been investigating for over a year.
“[This is] a smoking gun, this is Lois Lerner clearly cautioning people not to say things on email and be delighted to find out that the local instant chat they have, this Microsoft product, wasn’t tracking what they said,” Issa said Wednesday in an interview with Fox News.
In the April 2013 e-mail exchange, Lerner tells another IRS employee as well as the manager of the Exempt Organizations division, Nanette Downing, that she is “cautioning folks about email” because “Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails — so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails.”
The release of the e-mail exchange will fuel the continuing controversy over the records of Lerner’s communications. The IRS has said it cannot produce many of the e-mails she sent during a two-year period as a result of a hard-drive crash on her computer, and Lerner’s vocal concern about the contents of e-mail messages adds heft to Republicans’ charge that vital evidence has been lost.
Lerner, who retired from the IRS last September after she was suspended due to her role in the targeting of conservative groups, went on to ask whether “OCS conversations” — conversations conducted over the IRS’s electronic instant-messaging system — would be turned over to congressional investigators in addition to e-mails.
Issa said the exchange makes it clear that Lerner was “covering her tracks” and “didn’t want an audit trail of what they’d been doing and what they were doing was targeting conservatives for their views.”
The timing of Lerner’s message is significant because it was just a month later, in May 2013, that she disclosed the IRS’s inappropriate targeting of conservative groups by planting a question in the audience at a conference of the American Bar Association in Washington, D.C. At the time, she knew that the Treasury Department inspector general was investigating the targeting scandal at the urging of House Republicans, who had for months been asking questions about the complaints they were receiving from tea-party groups about seemingly invasive inquiries from the IRS.