A Justice Department official faced pressure Thursday to defend his agency’s handling of an investigation into a controversy at the IRS, amid a plot line revolving heavily around e-mails both lost and found.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole confronted harsh questioning from members of the House Oversight Committee Thursday, with Republicans arguing that the Justice Department probe is entangled in conflicts of interest and that an independent special prosecutor is needed.
The dispute centers on allegations that the Internal Revenue Service improperly singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status, in the wake of a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling.
E-mails have emerged as crucial pieces of evidence in the controversy – both messages that have become public and others that have gone missing or not yet emerged.
Mr. Cole told lawmakers that the Justice Department investigation is looking into the question of how a large chunk of e-mails to and from IRS official Lois Lerner seemed to disappear with the failure of her computer’s hard drive in 2011.
He said investigators became aware of the missing e-mails only last month, and that their probe now “includes investigating the circumstances of the lost e-mails from Ms. Lerner’s computer.”
Republican lawmakers voiced doubts about Cole’s assurances that the DOJ is pursuing the truth rigorously and impartially.
“Virtually all of those people are political appointees, aren't they?” Rep. Darrell Issa of California asked Cole, referring to an organization chart of high-ranking people in the Justice Department.
Thursday’s to-and-fro encapsulates the way the IRS controversy has simmered since last spring without resolution. Democrats say there’s no evidence of White House involvement in the alleged singling out of conservative tea-party-type groups for IRS scrutiny, nor of a top-down, political motivation behind the IRS actions.
Republicans retort that all the facts aren’t out yet. On Thursday, they tried to build the case that the best way to get the full facts is to have a special prosecutor, rather than Obama administration officials, take charge of the inquiry.
“We need a special prosecutor, because you're a political appointee, your boss is a political appointee held in contempt by Congress, the people that work for you work for you at your pleasure, and you're controlling an investigation that is slowly reaching no decision,” said Mr. Issa, who chairs the Oversight Committee.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, who chairs the Oversight subcommittee holding Thursday’s hearing, enumerated what he called “serious conflicts of interest” compromising the Justice inquiry. Examples include the prominent role that department attorney Barbara Bosserman is playing in the investigation, even as she is a substantial contributor to Democratic campaigns. Mr. Jordan said other bodies involved in the probe are Justice’s Public Integrity Section and the FBI, which “actually met with Lois Lerner in 2010 to discuss how to bring prosecution against these groups, the very same groups that were targeted by the IRS.”
Jordan said the 2010 meeting has became public only because a private group, Judicial Watch, sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The resulting e-mails included ones between Lerner and Richard Pilger of the DOJ's Public Integrity Section.
Cole said the 2010 meeting resulted in no Justice investigations, because “it became clear that it would be difficult to bring criminal prosecutions in this area.”
He said special prosecutors are a rarity, adding that the “one time we have appointed a special counsel was in the Waco investigation,” after a tragic federal siege involving a Texas-based sect.
Republicans continue to push for efforts to recover the missing Lerner e-mails, and for the release of more documents that the Justice Department has.
“Can you guarantee us that none of the documents the Justice Department is withholding from Congress are Lois Lerner e-mails?” Jordan asked at one point.
“I can't guarantee,” Cole said. “I haven't seen all the documents we're withholding, but we'll take a look at them.”