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Possible break in hunt for Lois Lerner's lost IRS emails
But don't get too excited; there's no guarantee of a smoking gun email

Things have been pretty quiet of late in the Congressional crusade against the Internal Revenue Service, so you can't be blamed for thinking that the tax agency was off the hook for its ham-handed handling all around of 501(c)(4) applications.

After all, a federal court judge on Oct. 23 threw out a pair of lawsuits filed by Tea Party groups, Linchpins of Liberty and True the Vote, against the IRS that had claimed the IRS targeted them for special scrutiny.

Last week, however, another thorn -- or more accurately 30,000 thorns -- in the IRS side flared up.

That's when the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate tax-writing committee announced a possible break in the hunt for missing emails connected to Lois Lerner. Lerner, who resigned from the IRS in September 2013, headed up the agency's Tax Exempt unit when the tax-exempt scandal broke back in May 2013.

IRS former executive Lois Lerner leaving Congressional hearing
Lois Lerner, before retiring from the Internal Revenue Service, leaves a Capitol Hill hearing on agency procedure for tax-exempt status requests. Lerner's refusal to testify led to a contempt of Congress charge.

Lost Lerner emails found? Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on Nov. 21 that they learned that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has been able to recover some forensic data which may include some Lerner documents that the IRS believed were missing.

"This data may include emails to and/or from Lois Lerner which could be material to the investigation," said the senators in a statement about the possible break in the hunt for up to 30,000 emails that might shed light on the IRS' previous tax-exempt review process.

The Wyden/Hatch statement didn't specify a mysteriously missing email figure.

Neither did the IRS offer a specific overall number of lost messages when it alerted Congressional investigators in June about a computer crash that resulted in the loss of agency emails, including those to and from Lerner from 2009 to 2011 and during the questionable tax-exempt review process.

But TIGTA reportedly has found 30,000 Lerner emails in its look into hundreds of disaster recovery tapes that were used to back up the IRS email system.

So that 30,000 number of recovered emails definitely earns this week's By the Numbers figure.

Just a possibility for now: Everything else about this latest revelation, however, remains a bit iffy.

Sure, conservative media outlets went crazy with the announcement, rushing to be the first to pound another nail in the IRS' coffin with regard to discriminatory standards for approving tax-exempt applications.

But hold on. The Senate Finance Committee disclosure seems to be a bit premature. And it's full of qualifiers. So let's take a breath and look at exactly what TIGTA might or might not have discovered.

According to the Senate tax-writing panel, TIGTA plans to assess whether this data can be converted into a readable format and then produce these materials to the committee as soon as it has fully recovered and validated them. The phrases that I, not the senators, bolded indicate that no one is quite sure exactly what TIGTA does or doesn't yet have with regard to the emails or it can even be retrieved.

Maybe the Finance Committee didn't want to be seen as hiding anything in case the messages do turn out to be the lost Lerner emails. To their credit, Wyden and Hatch also noted that their own investigation into the missing IRS data will include more than the TIGTA efforts and will run into the next year.

But their announcement of something that's not yet completed sure has led to a lot of conclusion jumping, some of it quite high. Some of those celebrating the possible smoking gun, er emails, might be in for hard and disappointing landings if TIGTA's discovery eventually turns out to be anticlimactic.

Other explanations: After all, IRS chief Koskinen, who caught GOP hell following the missing email disclosure, also subsequently noted that his agency had found 24,000 of Lerner's emails by searching the accounts of other IRS employees.

The potential new emails found by TIGTA simply could be duplicates of the already recovered digital documents, basically being the same messages retrieved from separate accounts.

Or they could provide more evidence that the IRS also preemptively and inappropriately vetted more liberal 501(c)(4) applicant groups, too.

If that's the case, the 18+ months of GOP-fueled Congressional investigations that have yet to find any evidence of tax agency (or White House) wrongdoing could be as done as the dismissed Tea Party lawsuits against the IRS.

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Jim Howard

The gun has been belching smoke for over a year now. It's undisputed that Lerner used the IRS taxing power to punish some groups for speech she didn't like, and then tried to cover it up.

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