The IRS’s inspector general confirmed Thursday it is conducting a criminal investigation into how Lois G. Lerner’s emails disappeared, saying it took only two weeks for investigators to find hundreds of tapes the agency’s chief had told Congress were irretrievably destroyed.
Investigators have already scoured 744 backup tapes and gleaned 32,774 unique emails, but just two weeks ago they found an additional 424 tapes that could contain even more Lerner emails, Deputy Inspector General Timothy P. Camus told the House Oversight Committee in a rare late-night hearing meant to look into the status of the investigation.
“There is potential criminal activity,” Mr. Camus said.
He said they have also discovered the hard drives from the IRS’s email servers, but said because the drives are out of synch it’s not clear whether they will be able to recover anything from them.
“To date we have found 32,744 unique emails that were backed up from Lois Lerner’s email box. We are in the process of comparing these emails to what the IRS has already produced to Congress to determine if we did in fact recover any new emails,” Mr. Camus said.
Democrats questioned the independence of Inspector General J. Russell George, who is overseeing the investigation, saying he’s injected politics into his work.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said Mr. George is refusing to turn documents over to him, prompting a heated reply.
“You’re not entitled to certain documents,” Mr. George said.
“Oh really? We’ll see about that, won’t we,” Mr. Connolly replied, saying that he questioned whether Mr. George could be trusted if he’s refusing to provide documents, yet is in charge of an investigation into whether the IRS stonewalled document requests.
The hearing was the latest chapter in the complex investigation into the IRS’s targeting of tea party groups for special scrutiny.
Several congressional committees are still probing the matter, and both the inspector general and the Justice Department are conducting criminal investigations.
In a 2013 report, the inspector general said the IRS had improperly targeted conservative and tea party groups’ applications for nonprofit status, asking repeated intrusive questions and delaying their applications well beyond a reasonable time. Some of those groups are still waiting, with their applications now pending for years.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and Oversight Committee chairman, said the ongoing investigations undercut President Obama’s assertion last year that there was no evidence of corruption in the IRS’s targeting.
“I have no idea how the president came to such a definitive conclusion without all the facts,” he said.
The IRS belatedly told Congress it may have lost some of Ms. Lerner’s emails after her computer crashed, and asserted that the backup tapes didn’t exist.
But under questioning from Mr. Chaffetz, Mr. Camus said it took him only two weeks to track down the backup tapes, and when he asked the IRS depository for them, the workers there said they’d never been contacted by the agency itself.
Republicans said that was stunning because IRS Commissioner John Koskinen repeatedly assured Congress the emails were irretrievably lost.
“I think they have misled or lied to the committee,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican.
Mr. Camus said they were clued in to the 424 new tapes they just found a couple of weeks ago after realizing the IRS hadn’t given over a key document. They demanded that document, and realized it showed hundreds of other tapes existed.
Democrats said the investigation has dragged on too long and been too expensive, pointing to the IRS’s estimate that it has spent $20 million on staff and equipment to try to comply with the committee’s request.
Ms. Lerner, who oversaw the unit of the IRS that scrutinized nonprofit groups’ applications, is a central figure in the investigations.
After belatedly discovering that some of her emails weren’t being recovered, the IRS did try to reconstitute them by asking other employees to dig through their emails to see if they were the recipients of any messages that involved her. That did produce some of the missing emails.
Democrats said the GOP seemed to be insinuating Ms. Lerner had purposely crashed her hard drive to hide emails – though she herself pushed to try to get messages recovered.
Democrats also questioned why the hearing was happening now, given that Mr. Camus and Mr. George both stressed that their findings are preliminary and could change as they learn more.
“It seems that the best course of action would be to have the inspector general come back when his report is complete,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the panel.
The Wisconsin Senate passed legislation late Wednesday to limit union powers amid a second day of protests as the state capitol again became a battleground over the future of organized labor.
The GOP-controlled Senate passed a “right-to-work” bill with a 17-15 vote that would allow employees in unionized private-sector workplaces to opt out of paying union dues. Republicans also control the state Assembly, making passage likely during the next week, and Gov. Scott Walker – who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 – has said he would sign such a measure into law.
Immediately after passage, the spectator gallery erupted in boos and chants of “shame, shame!” as the Senate ended its day.
Debate on the bill began Wednesday afternoon in the Senate as about 2,000 protesters jostled and chanted on the steps of the capitol and in the rotunda.
The measure comes four years after Mr. Walker pushed through legislation limiting the reach of public-sector unions, drawing tens of thousands to protest in the capitol and launching a contentious recall election, which the governor won.
Minutes after debate began, a spectator in the gallery stood up, and started yelling before being escorted from the chamber by a police officer. “This is an attack on Democracy!” he shouted.
A few minutes later, another audience member did much the same, before the gallery calmed down and debate continued. Spectators interrupted the session regularly, with the Senate president punctuating the outbursts by banging her gavel and summoning police to escort offenders from the chamber.
At the end of the night, her gavel fell apart in her hand mid-bang.
Although no arrests were made in the Senate, officers took four people into custody during protests in the rotunda, according to capitol police.
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader, said the bill would create a more competitive state economy and give workers more individual freedom to choose union membership, adding that the bill doesn’t prohibit collective bargaining between unions and employers.
“This legislation will ensure that Wisconsin’s workers have the sole power to determine whether they wish to belong to or support a labor organization,” he said in a statement following the vote.
“Right-to-work: it does impact the economy, except in the wrong direction,” said Democrat Senator Lena Taylor during the debate. “It will have an impact on so many things we aren’t even aware of because we’re rushing it through.”
Since his re-election last year, Mr. Walker has shown little interest in expanding union curbs to the private sector, but in recent days he reiterated his support of a right-to-work bill after state lawmakers took the lead.
The legislation still faces opposition from unions and Democratic lawmakers, who argue it is meant to undermine organized labor and won’t deliver the economic benefits backers promise. They also have accused Republican leaders of fast-tracking the legislation to stifle debate.
“It’s bad for the working men and women of this state, both union and nonunion,” said Sen. Dave Hansen, a Democrat, after the vote. “It’s ridiculous.”
But Myranda Tanck, spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzgerald, dismissed the argument, saying the idea isn’t new and possible legislation has been discussed in the state since the 1990s.
Still, the timing appears to have caught some opponents off guard, with labor leaders so far unable to muster the large crowds seen in 2011.
Senate Democrats presented more than a half-dozen amendments which were all defeated before the final vote Wednesday night. Assembly leaders have said they would take up the legislation next week following Senate action.
Twenty-four states have “right-to-work” laws, yet only three have passed such legislation in the past decade: Oklahoma, Michigan and Indiana. That could change in the coming months as several other states debate such bills.
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