Law & the Courts

House Republicans Considering Impeachment of IRS Head over Stonewalling in Lois Lerner Investigation

John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill, June 2014. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)
Agency destroyed e-mails after telling Congress they couldn't be found.

House Republicans investigating the IRS’s targeting of tea-party groups are seriously considering an effort to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen or other agency employees for “culpable misdemeanors” pertaining to the destruction of e-mails written by Lois Lerner, the former official at the heart of the scandal.

“We’ve briefed the leadership’s counsel, and I think that they’re open to it, but it’s the type of thing where this town is like, ‘oh, that’s not how we do things, it’s not really been used lately,’” a Republican member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says. “But, quite frankly, we really haven’t had executive branch officials behave this way like we do now.”

Lawmakers have been privately mulling the unconventional tactic for months, in part due to frustration that cutting the agency’s budget and holding Lerner in contempt of Congress failed to speed up the glacial pace at which the agency has produced documents requested by the committee. The ultimate decision depends on their ability to demonstrate that the IRS has obstructed the investigation — a public case that might begin Thursday, when the Treasury Department’s inspector general announces that IRS officials destroyed the files “most likely to have contained Lerner’s emails” after telling Congress they could not be found, according to a transcript of the IG’s forthcoming testimony to the Oversight Committee obtained by NR.

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who chairs the committee, says the next steps depend on what emerges from the hearing. “We are going to have the hearing, digest the content, read the report, and then chart a way forward,” he says.

According to inspector general J. Russell George, IRS officials literally put Lerner’s hard drive through a shredder, destroying it without exhausting every means of attempting to recover her data. “IRS IT management determined the extra effort to recover data from Ms. Lerner’s hard drive was not worth the expense,” George says in his prepared testimony.

‘If you have a situation where it’s fine for people to come misrepresent the facts, not produce documents, and just do that with impunity, then why are we even conducting oversight?’

That decision was made even though a technician in the criminal investigations division of the agency had “noted some scoring on the top platter of the drive” while trying to assist the IT division in recovering the data. “He believed there were additional steps that could have been taken to attempt to recover data,” George says. That was in July of 2011, before Koskinen led the agency. The hard drive was destroyed in April of 2012, according to the inspector general’s best estimate.

George goes on to note that IRS employees also erased the backup tapes of the server that housed Lerner’s e-mails in 2010 and 2011, though he says he “did not uncover evidence” of any conspiracy to obstruct the investigation. “[Investigators] took possession of the 424 backup tapes and determined that 422 of the 424 tapes were degaussed (i.e., magnetically erased) by IRS employees in Martinsburg on or around March 4, 2014, one month after the IRS realized they were missing e-mails from Lois Lerner, and approximately eight months after the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform requested ‘all documents and communications sent by, received by, or copied to Lois Lerner,’” George says in his prepared testimony.

Three weeks after the backup tapes were destroyed, Koskinen — Obama’s appointee to lead the IRS in the wake of Lerner’s public apology for the targeting of conservatives — practically dared House Republicans to take action against him when Representative Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) asked him how long Congress should wait for documents before holding IRS officials in contempt.

“I think the timeline is whenever you think you could actually sustain that in a court,” Koskinen said during a hearing in March of 2014. “I think we have a strong case that we have been cooperative, continue to be cooperative, and anybody looking at the systems we have and the time it takes would find that we’ve provided you more cooperation than, in fact, might be expected. And I think that, in fact, arguing and threatening contempt in that situation without understanding the circumstances is probably not going to be held up.”

In light of Koskinen’s public defiance and the agency’s continued stonewalling of the investigation, some lawmakers favor impeachment, because it doesn’t require cooperation from President Obama’s Justice Department. “Any civil officer is liable to be impeached,” the lawmaker says. “If the IG reports that evidence has been destroyed deliberately, that would be clearly a misdemeanor.”

“It’s really a test of whether Congress is going to defend its institutional prerogatives,” the Oversight Committee member says. “If you have a situation where it’s fine for people to come misrepresent the facts, not produce documents, and just do that with impunity, then why are we even conducting oversight?”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

 

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