By Kevin Drawbaugh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Internal Revenue Service was criticized by the government's chief archivist on Tuesday over emails that the tax agency has lost, the latest focus of a Republican inquiry into past IRS treatment of conservative groups.
U.S. Archivist David Ferriero told lawmakers at a hearing that the IRS did not inform his agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as required by law, when it discovered that a former senior IRS official's computer crash had wiped out some of her emails.
"When an agency becomes aware of an incident of unauthorized destruction, they must report the incident to us," he said, adding that the Archivist's office learned of the lost emails through a letter from the IRS to lawmakers. NARA has a government-wide mandate to keep track of documents.
Ferriero stopped short of broader accusations, while Democrats blasted Representative Darrell Issa, who chaired the hearing, for his handling of it and for issuing a subpoena on Monday compelling a second witness to appear.
That witness, Jennifer O'Connor, a lawyer who has worked at the White House for a month, worked at the IRS from May to November 2013, helping gather material sought by Issa and other investigators.
O'Connor, who was seated alongside Ferriero, shed no meaningful new light on the loss of the emails, or on the original focus of Issa's probe -- extra scrutiny applied by the IRS from March 2010 to May 2012 to applications for tax-exempt status from conservative groups.
Republicans have been investigating this IRS practice since it burst into view in May 2013. That was when Lois Lerner, a former agency official, 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 so-called Tea Party targeting affair had faded from view until last week when the IRS acknowledged losing some of Lerner's emails, which Republicans want for review.
Democrats on Tuesday said the loss of the emails dating from January 2009 to April 2011 was worth investigating, but they accused Issa of jumping to conclusions with little evidence and abusing his power to compel witnesses to appear before him.
At the hearing, Issa asked O'Connor a question. He then said, "Just yes or no, please. You're a hostile witness."
She replied, "I am not a hostile witness."
Issa said, "Yes you are." Later he said he had misspoken and said O'Connor was a "non-cooperative witness."
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the panel, said O'Connor left the IRS before the missing emails problem was understood.
"So why is she here?" Cummings asked. "It's because of where she works now. Today Ms. O'Connor will join the ranks of dozens of other officials who have been hauled up here" by Republicans seeking to link the IRS's conduct to the White House.
He said no witness has made such a link. "Issuing a subpoena to a White House lawyer does not change that," he said.
(Editing by Leslie Adler)