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By Timothy M. Phelps, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has widened its investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s alleged targeting of political groups to include the disappearance of two years of emails from a top official involved in the controversy.

The widening of the investigation was announced as Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cole was about to testify Thursday before a House Oversight and Governmental Reform subcommittee. The Republican-led committee has been aggressively pursuing the issue amid allegations of political influence within the IRS.

This spring the IRS said that two years’ worth of emails by Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS unit in charge of the controversial audits, had disappeared because of a hard-drive crash. Republicans were skeptical.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether any laws were broken as the IRS singled out organizations with “tea party” and other politically charged words in their names to see whether they were violating restrictions on political activities by charitable organizations.

On Thursday, Cole said for the first time that that would include an inquiry into the missing emails, though Justice Department officials cautioned that did not necessarily mean a full-scale criminal probe at this point.

In his prepared statement Cole apologizes to the subcommittee for not being able to say more about the investigation.

“While I understand that you are interested in learning about the results of the investigation, in order to protect the integrity and independence of this investigation, we cannot disclose nonpublic information about the investigation while it remains pending,” Cole’s statement says. “I can, however, tell you that the investigation includes investigating the circumstances of the lost emails from Ms. Lerner’s computer.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce defended the investigation against Republican criticism.

“The IRS investigation was launched by the department without hesitation and immediately after Ms. Lerner publicly acknowledged the potential misconduct. It has been conducted with the utmost integrity ever since, and department officials have regularly characterized the investigation as a top priority.”

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