Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of an investigation into the agency’s treatment of conservative political groups, may have used an internal instant-messaging system instead of email so that her communications could not be retrieved by investigators, Republican lawmakers said Wednesday.
The accusation against Ms. Lerner, the former head of the agency’s division on tax exemption, came nearly a week after the I.R.S. gave investigators thousands of her emails, including some that were destroyed when her hard drive crashed in 2011 but were recovered from the accounts of people with whom she had corresponded.
The Republican lawmakers said that in one of those email exchanges — which took place in the spring of 2013, just days after the Treasury Department’s inspector general concluded in a report that agency officials had treated conservative groups improperly — Ms. Lerner asked another official whether messages sent over the instant-messaging system were recorded. When she was told that they were not, she responded, “Perfect.”
Republican lawmakers interpreted that response as an expression of relief.
“Ms. Lerner says, ‘Wow, I know I’ve gotten rid of the emails when the computer crashed two years earlier, but I’d better double check on this intraoffice instant-messaging capability we have at the Internal Revenue Service,’ and she says ‘perfect’ when she learns that it’s not traceable, not trackable, not stored,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio said during a hearing of a House oversight subcommittee.
House Republicans were already incensed that they did not know about Ms. Lerner’s hard-drive crash until last month, more than a year after their investigation began. Likewise, on Wednesday, Mr. Jordan and other Republicans on the committee said it was unacceptable that they had not known about the I.R.S.’s internal instant-messaging system until the agency’s filing on July 3.
“We could have had this six months ago, when we first issued a subpoena when you first took over,” Mr. Jordan told John Koskinen, the I.R.S. commissioner, who was a witness at the hearing on Wednesday. Representative Ron DeSantis, Republican of Florida, said there was a “culture of obstruction at the I.R.S.”
Mr. Koskinen said that he had not been aware of the messaging system until recently and had never used it himself. He also said that the disclosure of the system was delayed because of the volume of documents requested by Congress, not because the agency was trying to obstruct the investigations.
“We’re giving it to you as fast as we can,” he said.
The Republicans said that the head of the I.R.S.’s auditing division had been copied on Ms. Lerner’s emails about the instant-messaging system, raising their suspicions that Ms. Lerner was pushing for audits of Republican lawmakers as the scandal was unfolding.
Also on Wednesday, Politico reported that Ms. Lerner might have printed out some of her lost emails, as agency officials are instructed to do when they deem a document to be an official record.
In a written statement, Ms. Lerner’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, acknowledged that Ms. Lerner had printed out “some emails.” But he rejected the Republicans’ assertion that Ms. Lerner deliberately destroyed records and called their investigation into the missing emails “a useful diversion because the initial investigation has demonstrated no wrongdoing.”
“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 her computer,” Mr. Taylor said.
A report about the missing emails by the I.R.S.’s inspector general is expected soon, Mr. Koskinen said.