The commissioner of the IRS said Monday that Republican allegations that he misled congressional investigators probing his agency "are without merit," and said he would not appear at a congressional hearing this week examining whether he deserves to be impeached.
In a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., IRS chief John Koskinen said he has not had time to prepare for Tuesday's hearing because of travel and work required for an unrelated hearing. Koskinen, who was not subpoenaed to appear, said he would be willing to testify in the future.
In an attached seven-page statement, Koskinen denied charges lodged against him in an impeachment resolution filed last October by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Chaffetz, whose resolution is co-sponsored by 73 GOP lawmakers, accuses Koskinen of hindering congressional investigators trying to gather evidence about how the IRS mistreated conservative groups earlier this decade, actions the agency has acknowledged and apologized for.
The election-season impeachment effort has not won forceful backing from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., enjoys only lukewarm support among Republicans and is strongly opposed by Democrats, making it almost certain to go nowhere this year.
In his statement, which was provided by Judiciary panel Republicans, Koskinen acknowledged the "strong feelings" and "understandable frustration" that many in the GOP have had with the investigations, in which data containing requested emails was destroyed. Koskinen conceded there have been "acknowledged errors" by the IRS.
But he added: "The Constitution reserves the use of impeachment to 'treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors.'" He said none of his actions "viewed in light of all the facts come close to that level."
Chaffetz will testify to the Judiciary committee Tuesday. In an interview last week, Chaffetz said, "What's the justification for keeping him in office when he provides false testimony?"
A spokeswoman for Goodlatte said the IRS chief was given a chance to defend himself "and it is up to him to take advantage of that opportunity."
Conservatives who have long targeted the IRS were outraged when the agency admitted in 2013 that it subjected conservative tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status to excessive scrutiny. A chief focus of congressional committees that have conducted investigations has been Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS office that processes applications for that status and who subsequently retired.
Chaffetz' impeachment resolution accuses Koskinen of inadequately responding to congressional subpoenaed documents including Lerner's emails and misleadingly claiming none of those emails had been lost. It also says Koskinen waited several months before telling Congress that data containing Lerner's emails had been destroyed.
In March 2014, IRS workers erased 422 backup tapes containing up to 24,000 of Lerner's emails, an event that Chaffetz' impeachment resolution calls "the destruction of evidence."
In his statement Monday, Koskinen said that was "clearly a failure" of IRS procedures. He noted that the Justice Department and the IRS inspector general concluded the erasures were an accident and added, "No one has even suggested, nor could they suggest, that I was somehow personally involved in the erasure of the tapes."
He said when he told Congress in June 2014 that all emails had been preserved, "That was my honest belief at the time" because he wasn't yet aware of the erased tapes.
Koskinen said he learned in April 2014 of a separate crash of Lerner's computer hard drive, but didn't tell Congress until that June because he waited until his agency understood how much data had been lost.
Koskinen said the agency has provided 1.3 million pages of documents, including 78,000 Lerner emails, and spent more than $20 million and 160,000 man-hours of work to respond to the investigations.
To impeach a federal official, a majority of the House must vote for conviction, but it then takes a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate to actually remove the official from office.
The Senate's minority Democrats would be able to prevent Republicans from reaching that margin, even in the unlikely scenario that the process reached that point.