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U.S. tax chief won't apologize to Republicans in 'Tea Party' probe

U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) questions outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller during a hearing on t
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) questions outgoing acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller during a hearing on t

By Patrick Temple-West and Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service refused to apologize on Friday for the loss of emails that Republican investigators want as part of a year-old inquiry into the tax agency's scrutiny of politically conservative groups.

"I don’t think an apology is owed," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Republican Representative Dave Camp in a tense exchange at a hearing about the emails, the latest fallout from 2013's so-called IRS Tea Party targeting affair.

Koskinen, confirmed as the new IRS chief in December, also said he would not support Republicans' renewed demands at the hearing for a special prosecutor to investigate the matter.

"Appointing a special prosecutor ... would be a monumental waste of taxpayer funds," Koskinen told Camp, who chaired the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee session. It broke no major new ground about the loss of the emails or about the IRS's past oversight of tax-exempt political groups.

Democrats on the committee said Republicans were refocusing on the controversy to stir their conservative voter base ahead of congressional mid-term elections in November. Representative Sander Levin said Republicans were rehashing allegations of White House involvement for which there is no evidence.

Levin, the committee's top Democrat, said IRS employees have spent thousands of hours working to produce documents sought by investigators "at a cost of at least $16 million to taxpayers."

The investigation dates to May 2013, when former IRS official Lois Lerner unexpectedly apologized in public for what she called "inappropriate" scrutiny by the IRS of non-profit conservative groups, some aligned with the Tea Party.

Republicans accused the IRS of unfairly singling out conservative groups' applications for tax-exempt status for extra review. In the controversy that followed, the acting chief of the IRS stepped down and Lerner later retired.

The Republican-led inquiry last week returned to the headlines after the IRS said it had lost some emails by Lerner that had been requested by congressional investigators. The IRS said Lerner's computer crashed in mid-2011 and that some of her emails from January 2009 to April 2011 could not be recovered.

"We are missing a huge piece of the puzzle," Camp said at the hearing, saying the IRS knew of the missing emails problem months ago, but did not tell the committee until last week.

"I don’t believe that the IRS went through every possible exercise to recover these documents," Camp told Koskinen. "You say that you have 'lost' the emails, but what you have lost is all credibility."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday that, after 14 congressional hearings and the submission of 750,000 pages of documents to congressional investigators, there was "zero evidence to support Republican claims."

He said the Obama administration does not support naming a special prosecutor. “Despite all of the data that has been provided to Congress, there's not a shred of evidence that substantiates Republican conspiracy theories,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Dan Grebler and Chris Reese)

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