Washington (CNN) — Scrutiny and criticism of the IRS again surged Monday night as the Treasury’s inspector general embarked on a new investigation into thousands of lost e-mails. Separately, Republicans and the top man at the tax agency fought their sharpest public battle yet in a contentious congressional hearing.
“This will be difficult,” House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, correctly predicted minutes into his committee’s rare Monday evening hearing.
His words were directed at a single witness: IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who faced his second grilling by a Republican-led committee since Friday.
The Oversight Committee and, last week, the House Ways & Means Committee, called Koskinen to testify after the agency revealed it lost two years’ worth of e-mails belonging to former IRS administrator Lois Lerner because of a 2011 computer hard drive crash.
Lerner ran the IRS division in charge of tax-exempt status, a division that forced some tea party and other political groups to go through a more difficult and lengthy process than other applicants. The retired IRS official has said she did nothing wrong, but she has frustrated congressional investigators by citing her constitutional right against having to testify.
Lerner’s lack of testimony is why the House charged her with contempt and why her e-mail records are seen as critical in answering whether anyone else knew or directed the political targeting.
Hard drive issue comes in sharp focus
On Monday, her 2011 hard drive crash become its own, separate federal inquiry.
“The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration has already begun an investigation into this matter,” Koskinen told the Oversight committee Monday. “(The TIGTA) report will provide an independent review of the situation concerning Ms. Lerner’s computer crash three years ago.”
A spokeswoman for the inspector general confirmed the information to CNN, writing “TIGTA is looking into the circumstances surrounding the missing e-mails and the associated IT issues.”
As TIGTA investigated, Republicans unleashed a full-court press against Koskinen.
The IRS chief said he first heard of a potential hard drive problem in February but only knew e-mail was lost in late April. That infuriated GOP lawmakers who recalled Koskinen’s March testimony before them, when he spoke about Lerner’s e-mails but never mentioned any hard drive issue.
“Frankly I’m sick and tired of your game playing in regards to congressional oversight,” Issa boomed. “At a minimum, you did not tell the whole truth that you knew (in March). … We are just a little questioning what your word is worth.”
Koskinen responded that in March, the IRS was still trying to salvage as many missing e-mails as it it could. Issa was not impressed.
“You did not come back and inform us,” Issa said. Koskinen did not bend.
“I did not say I’d give you e-mails that disappeared,” Koskinen charged back. “If you have a magical way of doing that, I’d be happy to do that.”
“I’ve lost my patience with you,” Issa retorted.
Republicans split their time between blasting the IRS and digging for specific information about the computer crash. Yet despite dozens of questions about hard drive capacity, the IRS’ technology policies and the time line of what the agency knew when, lawmakers unearthed little new information from the IRS chief.
He pointed to his key numbers: that the IRS has handed over 750,000 documents to Congress and has recovered some 24,000 of Lerner’s lost e-mails by going through other IRS accounts which had copies.
Democrats question motives of GOP
For their part, Democrats on the committee hammered away at Republicans, accusing their political opponents of a witch hunt.
“There is an agenda that presupposes some guilt … based in part on supposition, on paranoia, on conspiracy theory,” said Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, “all of which fires up the base of the other party and plays well with right-wing media outlets.”
Accusations bounced back and forth for hours, bringing interruptions, dueling points of order and, even by congressional standards, a rare level of indignation on both sides.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a display of this kind disrespect in all the time I’ve been here in Congress,” said Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney. “It’s unfortunate that anybody would have to be subjected to it.”
Issa immediately cut in, asking Tierney to let him speak. Tierney refused and Issa, as chairman, decided to stop the hearing clock in order to issue a warning.
“I would caution all members not to characterize the intent and character of your fellow members here on the dias,” the California Republican declared.
Then, from across the room, Koskinen interrupted. “But it’s fair to question the integrity of the witness?”
The hearing lasted more than three-and-a-half hours, and Issa told the audience that he expects to call Koskinen to testify again, once the IRS commissioner replies to the 15 written questions Issa sent to him late last week.
Congressman to IRS chief: Any more bad news?
In the meanwhile, Rep. Tom Massie, R-Kentucky, asked Koskinen whether there were any other hard drive crashes or negative surprises the IRS might announce in the tea party investigation.
“I do not know of any other bad news,” Koskinen said.
After the hearing, Koskinen tried to shrug off the blistering questions. “It comes with the territory,” he told reporters. But he also expressed frustration with questions about his honesty and motivation.
“I didn’t come out of retirement to play games,” the former corporate CEO said, “I came out of retirement to restore the credibility of the IRS.”
The House Oversight Committee plans to hold a second day of hearings on the lost e-mails Tuesday morning and has subpoenaed Jennifer O’Connor, a former IRS attorney who now works at the White House.
The White House initially responded that O’Connor left the IRS before the agency knew about the problem with Lerner’s hard drive and, thus, would not have any knowledge to offer.