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U.S. Justice Department says investigating lost IRS emails

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday confirmed it is investigating the loss of Internal Revenue Service emails being sought by congressional Republicans in an inquiry over tax scrutiny of conservative political groups.

In written testimony to be delivered to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the probe "includes investigating the circumstances of the lost emails" from the computer of Lois Lerner, a retired IRS official.

Republican lawmakers have asserted that Lerner, who had headed the IRS unit that oversaw tax-exempt organizations, was deliberately trying to hide information from Congress.

Last month, the IRS acknowledged losing some of Lerner's emails to a computer hard-drive failure, an incident that has rekindled Republican outrage in the long-running controversy over IRS targeting of conservative political groups.

A Justice Department official said there had been no determination of whether the probe was criminal in nature.

Cole did not provide any specifics of the probe.

"I do pledge to you that when our investigation is completed, we will provide Congress with detailed information about the facts we uncovered and the conclusions we reached in this matter," Cole said in his testimony, which is due to be delivered before the panel on Thursday.

Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the IRS probe was started immediately after Lerner publicly acknowledged potential misconduct in the IRS's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

"It has been conducted with the utmost integrity ever since, and department officials have regularly characterized the investigation as a top priority," she said. 

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha and David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Beech)

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