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IRS workers mistakenly erased tea party emails (+video)

IRS workers erased 422 computer backup tapes that 'most likely' contained as many as 24,000 emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner, who has emerged as a central figure in congressional investigations, according to IRS's inspector general.

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Investigators are blaming mistakes by IRS employees – not a criminal conspiracy – for the loss of thousands of emails related to the tax agency's tea party scandal.

IRS workers erased 422 computer backup tapes that "most likely" contained as many as 24,000 emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner, who has emerged as a central figure in congressional investigations, according to IRS's inspector general.

The workers erased the tapes a month after IRS officials discovered that an untold number of Lerner's emails were lost. The IG says the workers were unaware of a year-old directive not to destroy email backup tapes.

J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, is scheduled to testify Thursday before the House Oversight Committee about his investigation into the emails. The Associated Press obtained a copy of his prepared testimony.

George says his investigation "did not uncover evidence that the erasure was done in furtherance of an effort to destroy evidence or conceal information from Congress and/or law enforcement."

Still, the revelation that computer tapes were erased after officials knew about the lost emails is likely to fuel conspiracy theories among conservatives who say the IRS has obstructed investigations into the scandal.

An IRS spokeswoman said Wednesday evening the agency had no immediate comment.

George set off a firestorm in May 2013 with an audit that said IRS agents improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Several hundred groups had their applications delayed for a year or more. Some were asked inappropriate questions about donors and group activities, the inspector general's report said.

Lerner used to head the IRS division that processes applications for tax-exempt status. In June 2014, the IRS told Congress it had lost an unknown number of Lerner's emails when her computer hard drive crashed in 2011.

The IRS had discovered that the emails were lost in February 2014. A month later, workers erased the 422 computer backup tapes, George says in his testimony.

The IRS says it has produced 78,000 Lerner emails, many of which have been made public by congressional investigators. IRS officials said no more could be recovered.

George, however, said the IRS never examined backup tapes that ultimately produced more than 1,000 additional emails.

George started investigating the lost emails last year after the IRS announced they were destroyed. His testimony before the Oversight Committee summarizes the results of the investigation.

After George's initial report, much of the IRS's top leadership was forced to retire or resign, including Lerner. The Justice Department and several congressional committees launched investigations.

Lerner emerged as a central figure in the controversy after she refused to answer questions at two House Oversight hearings, invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself at both hearings. At the first hearing, Lerner made a statement saying she had done nothing wrong.

Last year, the House voted mostly along party lines to hold her in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions at the hearings. The US attorney in the District of Columbia declined to prosecute her.

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