By John D. McKinnon

WASHINGTON--Lawmakers investigating the Internal Revenue Service's treatment of conservative groups released new emails Wednesday suggesting that top IRS officials communicated through an instant-messaging service that wasn't routinely archived.

The revelation adds to lawmakers' concerns about the agency's handling of documents related to their current inquiry into the agency's alleged targeting of conservative tea-party groups for burdensome scrutiny as they sought tax-exempt status. Republicans already have criticized the IRS for losing about two years' worth of emails that could be important to the probe, largely because a computer hard drive belonging to a former top IRS official, Lois Lerner, crashed in mid-2011. Backuptapes also were routinely reused after six months.

The latest emails suggest that IRS officials had a separate instant-messaging system that also wasn't preserved.

The new emails also raised new questions for some lawmakers about Ms. Lerner, the now-retired head of the IRS exempt organizations division who has become a focus of the inquiry. The emails show her urging colleagues to be cautious about what they say in their emails, because Congress had previously tried to obtain them.

"I was cautioning folks about email and how we have had several occasions where Congress has asked for emails and there has been an electronic search for responsive emails--so we need to be cautious about what we say in emails," Ms. Lerner wrote. "Someone asked if [instant messaging] conversations were also searchable--I don't know, but told them I would get back to them. Do you know?"

"[Instant] messages are not set to automatically save as the standard; however the functionality exists within the software," the technician wrote back. "My general recommendation is to treat the conversation as if it could/is being saved somewhere, as it is possible for either party of the conversation to retain the information and have it turn up as part of an electronic search."

"Perfect," Ms. Lerner replied.

The email conversation occurred in early April of 2013, just a few days after the agency's inspector general delivered a critical report on the alleged targeting to IRS officials. The inspector general's report--which concluded that the IRS targeted the conservative groups--was made public about a month later, touching off a political furor.

Ms. Lerner's attorney couldn't be immediately reached for comment about the new information, but he has said repeatedly that she has done nothing wrong.

The IRS did not provide an immediate comment.

Write to John D. McKinnon

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 09, 2014 16:14 ET (20:14 GMT)

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