The Case Of The Missing Emails

The congressional inquiry into whether the IRS targeted conservative political groups has been a weird story for some time now, and it keeps getting weirder.

Last Friday afternoon — the bad news always seems to be released on a Friday afternoon, doesn’t it? — the IRS told congressional investigators that the computer of the key figure in the probe, Lois Lerner, had crashed in 2011, and as a result two years of emails had been lost.  Then, backup tapes that would have preserved the emails were progressively wiped clean as part of a standard recycling program.  So, the IRS says, Ms. Lerner’s email box is lost, but it tried to retrieve the emails from other IRS sources and was able to get some of them.  Republicans are crying foul; Democrats are saying it’s another ginned up controversy by conspiracy-minded, scandal-obsessed opponents of the President.

Then today the IRS disclosed that the emails from another six IRS employees — including people who Republicans believe were involved in the alleged targeting of the conservative groups — also were lost when their computers crashed.  In addition, IRS technicians told congressional investigators that they were aware that Lerner’s emails were lost back in February or March, but waited until now to disclose that fact.  The IRS says it tried to retrieve Lerner’s emails, but forensic analysts were unable to do so.

The mainstream press seems to be paying more attention to this story; the articles linked above are from NPR, USA Today, and ABC.  I think the attention is warranted, because even the innocent explanations sure make it seem like the IRS follows odd practices.

Lois Lerner was the head of the exempt organizations division of the IRS, not some flunky.  If her computer crashed and she lost all of her email, why didn’t IRS computer geeks just grab the most recent back-up tape, download her email box, and restore it to her computer?  What’s the point of keeping back-up tapes if you don’t use them in the case of a crash and catastrophic data wipeout?  And could the IRS really have computers that are so crappy that seven different employees — including Lerner and the chief of staff to the deputy commissioner of the IRS — experienced devastating crashes that caused them to lose all of their email, which again was not restored through resort to back-up tapes?  And if the IRS determined that the emails were lost months ago, why didn’t they ‘fess up immediately rather than withholding the information until now?

Folks, this isn’t a mere political football, it’s a matter of accountability and good practices.  If the IRS has ludicrous computer capabilities and poor data practices, we should address that — and if there was some kind of targeting campaign and cover-up, we obviously have a right to get to the bottom of that, too.  Congress has a right to investigate the activities of federal administrative agencies, and those administrative agencies — even the IRS — should respond openly, completely, and promptly.  It doesn’t appear that that was done here.  Why not?  It’s a fair question.

Politicizing The IRS

Ask Americans which federal agency they fear the most, and many are likely to say it’s the Internal Revenue Service. Every year, Americans send in their federal tax filings by the April 15 deadline — which is only four days away, folks — and we’ve all heard stories about tax liabilities, painful audits, and the IRS taking people’s houses on those urgent tax-preparer and tax-problem-solver radio and late-night TV commercials.

That backdrop of angst is what makes the current issues about a politicized IRS so troubling. On Wednesday, the Office of Special Counsel, which is responsible for investigating allegations that federal employees violated federal law that bars them from engaging in partisan campaign activities, announced that it had found improper political activity by IRS employees. The activities included official telephone calls with taxpayers in which IRS employees explicitly promoted President Obama’s reelection and criticized Republicans.

Also on Wednesday, a House Committee investigating allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for special scrutiny released emails showing that former IRS official Lois Lerner mentioned the possibility of getting a job with Organizing for Action, an offshoot of President Obama’s reelection campaign. Lerner’s email statement may have been an ill-advised joke, but we can’t know for sure because she has invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify about her activities beyond making a general statement that she has done nothing wrong. Another unanswered allegation is that the IRS leaked a conservative group’s application for tax-exempt status to an investigative website. The IRS targeting allegations have caused the House Ways and Means Committee to recommend that the Justice Department prosecute Lerner, and Lerner’s refusal to answer questions has caused the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to vote to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. The actions of the two House Committees, it should be added, were taken on straight party-line votes — which only adds to the partisan odor.

Has the IRS become politicized? That’s an important question for everyone, regardless of their political inclinations. Through their tax filings, Americans provide the IRS with huge amounts of otherwise highly confidential information each year — about what they own, what they’ve earned, the charities they help fund, and the causes and candidates they support. Americans need to be able to trust that that information will be kept private and won’t be used for political purposes or to single out people or groups for adverse treatment. The disclosures about political activities by IRS officials and line employees, and the fact that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree about how to investigate the targeting allegations, are bound to erode that essential trust. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, if you are a taxpayer that is a very unsettling development.