By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Republicans asserted on Wednesday that new emails show a former Internal Revenue Service official deliberately sought to hide information from Congress, opening a new chapter in a probe of IRS treatment of conservative groups.
An email exchange released by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa shows the former official, Lois Lerner, asking a colleague whether communications made through an internal messaging system can be searched by Congress. Issa said the exchange, culled from documents provided to Congress last week, showed that Lerner was "leading an effort to hide information from congressional inquiries."
The latest accusation prompted heated questioning of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen at a hearing and angry exchanges among a Democrat and Republicans on the panel.
In the emails, Lerner says she has been telling colleagues to be cautious about what they say in emails and asks whether internal messages are subject to the same data transparency rules. Her colleague replies that even though some messages could be exempt, they should still be treated as if reviewable.
Republicans have been investigating IRS scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status since the practice burst into view in May 2013. That was when Lerner publicly apologized for it at a conference.
Her unexpected statement triggered the worst crisis at the IRS in years, with Republicans accusing the agency of singling out conservative groups, some aligned with the Tea Party, for unfair treatment. Lerner retired from the IRS in September.
The issue had faded from view until last month when the IRS acknowledged losing some of Lerner's emails, which Republicans want for review. Republicans accused the IRS of hiding them and of obstructing the congressional inquiry.
Democrats, for their part, accused Republicans of rehashing baseless accusations for political theater in what has come to be known as the IRS Tea Party targeting affair.
The IRS reviews the activities of non-profit organizations seeking exemptions from paying taxes because U.S. law limits their political involvement. Non-profits have increasingly been used as conduits for political spending, especially by conservatives.
On Wednesday, several Republican lawmakers on the panel grilled Koskinen about when the agency would make officials available to talk about how the emails were misplaced.
Koskinen said he could not do so until an internal investigation is complete. He also said he had never heard of the internal messaging system.
Lerner’s questions about internal messages suggest she had something to hide, Republican Representative Jim Jordan said, prompting an angry exchange with Gerry Connolly, a Democrat.
Connolly said one interpretation of Lerner’s emails could be that she understood that internal messages should be treated as reviewable by Congress.
"You expect us, and more importantly the American people, to believe that, oh yeah, perfect, now we know we need to save these? That is the most ridiculous interpretation," Jordan said.
In response, Connolly said: "As a matter of personal privilege, I would ask that my colleague not question another member as ridiculous."
(Reporting By Mark Felsenthal)