WASHINGTON—Lawmakers investigating the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of conservative groups released new emails Wednesday suggesting that top IRS officials communicated through an instant-messaging system that wasn’t routinely archived.
The revelation adds to lawmakers’ concerns about the agency’s handling of documents related to their inquiry into the IRS’s alleged targeting of conservative tea-party groups for burdensome scrutiny as they sought tax-exempt status.
Republicans already have criticized the IRS for losing about two years’ worth of emails that could be important to the probe, largely because a computer hard drive belonging to a former top IRS official, Lois Lerner, crashed in mid-2011. Backup tapes storing the messages were routinely reused after six months.
The latest emails suggest that IRS officials used a separate instant-messaging system whose contents also weren’t preserved.
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The emails raised new questions for some lawmakers about Ms. Lerner, the now-retired head of the IRS tax-exempt-organizations division who has become a focus of the inquiry.She wrote the emails to an IRS information technology official and the head of her division’s audit unit.
“I was cautioning folks about email and how we have had several occasions where 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,” Ms. Lerner wrote. “Someone asked if [instant messaging] conversations were also searchable—I don’t know, but told them I would get back to them. Do you know?”
“[Instant] messages are not set to automatically save as the standard; however the functionality exists within the software,” the IRS official wrote back. “My general recommendation is to treat the conversation as if it could/is being saved somewhere, as it is possible for either party of the conversation to retain the information and have it turn up as part of an electronic search.”
“Perfect,” Ms. Lerner replied.
The email conversation occurred in early April 2013, just a few days after the agency’s inspector general delivered a critical report on the alleged targeting to IRS officials, GOP lawmakers noted. The inspector general’s report—which concluded that the IRS targeted the conservative groups—was made public about a month later, touching off a political furor.
GOP lawmakers are expected to try to find out more about the instant-messaging system, and whether the IRS should have been preserving more of its contents. Already, archives officials have said the IRS didn’t follow federal records rules in failing to report Ms. Lerner’s hard-drive crash.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the IRS has had a subpoena that would have covered the instant-message system. “To our knowledge, we’ve received no discovery [information] from it,” he added.
The IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, told the committee at a hearing Wednesday that he was unaware of the instant-messaging system. He said he understood that lawmakers’ questions about the system were “important matters.” Mr. Koskinen agreed to quickly provide more information about it.
However, after reviewing the emails he rejected GOP lawmakers’ suggestion that the exchange suggested Ms. Lerner had welcomed the information that the messages weren’t routinely saved. Mr. Koskinen and a Democratic lawmaker noted that the IRS computer official told Ms. Lerner to treat all messages as if they were being saved.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) asked why it took the IRS so long to provide the emails disclosing the messaging system. Mr. Koskinen said the IRS was “giving them to you as fast as we can.”
The IRS has said it is allowing the inspector general to complete an expedited investigation of the computer failures before taking any further steps of its own to investigate. The latest email exchange was provided to the committee last week.
Ms. Lerner’s lawyer, William Taylor III, didn’t immediately offer a comment on the new revelations. Separately, he said in a prepared statement about the inquiry that committee Republicans have focused on record-keeping because the facts show she did nothing wrong.
“This subsequent inquiry is apparently a useful diversion…,” he said in the statement. “The facts are that Ms. Lerner did not destroy any records subject to the Federal Records Act, she did not cause the computer assigned to her to fail, and she made every effort to recover the files on the computer.”