IRS lost tax-exempt applications of Tea Party-affiliated organizations

10460326_738028742925822_1418608679181372060_n[1]On Friday, the Internal Revenue Service informed Congressional investigators that it could not recover two years of emails from Lois Lerner, the former head of the agency’s tax-exempt status department. Lerner has been at the center of the investigation into how and why the IRS applied additional scrutiny to the tax-exempt applications of Tea Party-affiliated organizations.

Lerner has refused to testify on the subject, meaning that her emails are one of the only records of what happened in her own words. The IRS has 67,000 emails from or to Lerner that it has or will turn over to investigators, but a large number, from 2009 to 2011, are apparently lost — a disappearance that quickly triggered skepticism, particularly from Congressional Republicans trying to figure out whether Lerner was acting on orders from Washington.

Here’s what the IRS says happened. (A quick background on email before we begin. Email moves back and forth between servers. Email sent to goes to the IRS’ email server; emails sent from to, say,, travel over the internet to Google’s email servers. You access your email using an email client, a tool that reads email from the server either directly or by downloading it first. As with everything tech-related, it is actually more complicated than this.)

Prior to the eruption of the IRS controversy last spring, the IRS had a policy of backing up the data on its email server (which runs Microsoft Outlook) every day. It kept a backup of the records for six months on digital tape, according to a letter sent from the IRS to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). After six months, the IRS would reuse those tapes for newer backups. So when Congressional committees began requesting emails from the agency, its records only went back to late 2012.

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