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In a recent radio campaign ad, Louisiana senate candidate John Fleming claimed that the head of the Internal Revenue Service ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could see them.
"The head of the IRS ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them, making sure the American people will never know the real truth," Fleming’s ad says. "The officials in charge follow the same dishonest playbook they’ve used for every scandal from Fast and Furious to Hillary’s emails."
Fleming is running for senator of Louisiana against six Republican candidates, including David Duke, as well as three Democrats and one unaffiliated candidate.
Fleming -- who currently represents Louisiana in the House -- is calling for the impeachment of IRS commissioner John Koskinen.
So far, Democrats are largely against the impeachment, and Republicans are divided on it, citing due process concerns. A vote on the matter was expected on Sept. 15, 2016, but it was delayed.
Since destruction of documents is a serious charge, we wondered if it was true that the head of the IRS "ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them." Independent reports suggest that’s not the case.
Congress first requested emails in May 2013 as part of an investigation into unfair targeting of the Tea Party and other right-leaning groups for tax exemptions.
Lois Lerner – the former Exempt Organizations Unit director – had admitted to using loaded keywords, including "tea party," to search within tax exemption forms. However, it was not proven the IRS targeted groups based on political ideology.
Investigators then noticed a gap in email dates. They discovered Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011, erasing Congress-requested emails. This prompted another investigation into whether the IRS purposefully destroyed the them.
According to investigation reports from the Justice Department and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, no evidence was found that the IRS intentionally obstructed justice.
Both investigations reached the same conclusion after interviewing 118 witnesses, reviewing 20 terabytes of data (equal to about 1.3 million printed pages) and collecting documentation from more than 80 IRS employees.
One method investigators used to try to recover documents was to examine IRS email backup tapes. They discovered IRS employees had inadvertently destroyed 400 tapes that may have contained the missing emails.
In May 2013, then-IRS Chief Technology Officer, Terence Milholland, sent an email in changing the backup tape recycle policy from six months to an indefinite retention period.
"Given the current environment and ongoing investigations, until further notice, do not destroy/wipe/reuse any of the existing backup tapes for email, or archiving of other information from IRS personal computers," the email said.
Milholland also instructed employees to save all information on personal computers being returned, reclaimed, refreshed, or updated.
However, there was a misunderstanding among employees, resulting in the destruction of the tapes. Treasury Department interviews and emails between employees show some thought the CTO policy only prevented the destruction of hard drives, the report investigation said.
We reached out to the Fleming campaign, and they sent us a transcript of a hearing before the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform on the IRS emails.
According to testimony from Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George during the hearing, "As Ms. Lerner’s hard drive could not be recovered, and the 422 tapes most likely to have contained Ms. Lerner’s e-mails from 2010 and 2011 were erased in March 2014, we were unable to recover all of the missing e-mails."
However, the Treasury Inspector General investigation stated, "No evidence was uncovered that any IRS employees had been directed to destroy or hide information from Congress, the DOJ or TIGTA."
Fleming said, "The head of the IRS ordered 24,000 emails erased before Congress could review them, making sure the American people will never know the real truth."
Emails were erased, and up to 24,000 are likely unrecoverable. However, there’s zero evidence that the head of the IRS ordered them destroyed. Multiple independent investigations confirmed that the erasure was accidental and not intended to obstruct information from Congress. Fleming’s ad says the opposite.
We rate this claim False.
Treasury Department, Report of Investigation, accessed Sept. 14, 2016
Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik, letter to Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Oct. 23, 2015
John Fleming, Too Far, accessed Sept. 12, 2016
Common Cause, House Weighs Unprecedented Impeachment of IRS Commissioner without Due Process, Sept. 13, 2016
NOLA.com, 2016 Louisiana Senate race: Who's in? Who can win? Sept. 2, 2016
Politico, 5 questions: IRS lost emails, July 24, 2014
International Revenue Service, Written Statement of John A. Koskinen, Commissioner, Internal Revenue Service, Provided for the House Judiciary Committee, May 24, 2016
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