Justice Department investigating missing Lois Lerner emails

Lois Lerner, former director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the IRS, listens during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill March 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Last Updated Jul 16, 2014 6:09 PM EDT

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department said Wednesday it is investigating the circumstances behind the disappearance of emails from a former senior Internal Revenue Service official, part of a broader criminal inquiry into whether the agency had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

In testimony to be delivered Thursday to a congressional committee, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said investigators are looking into emails that went missing from the computer of Lois Lerner. Cole was appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating the matter.

The IRS says it lost the emails in 2011 when Lois Lerner's computer crashed. At the time, Lerner headed the IRS division that deals with tax-exempt organizations.

Lerner, who refused to answer questions at two House committee hearings, has become a central figure in several congressional investigations into the handling of applications for tax-exempt status by tea party groups. At both hearings, Lerner cited her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

A federal judge last week ordered the IRS to explain how it lost a trove of emails to and from Lerner.

Lerner's attorney, William Taylor, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

"The IRS investigation was launched by the department without hesitation and immediately after Ms. Lerner publicly acknowledged the potential misconduct," Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement. The probe remains a top priority for the department, she said.

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