Lois Lerner’s ‘Lost’ Emails And The IRS’s Credibility Problem
It was late on Friday when the Internal Revenue Service announced that it had lost some unknown number of emails sent to and from Lois Lerner, the woman at the center of the targeting scandal that came to light last year, due to a computer hard drive crash. As I noted at the time, the claim itself seemed incredulous given the fact that Federal laws that have been in place for decades require agencies such as the IRS to maintain copies of all records, something that one would think would be relatively easy when dealing with electronic communications. So, if Lerner’s emails really were “lost” from their original location, then there should be a backup somewhere unless the communications in place took place outside of the normal communications channels that would have resulted in automatic backup, something that is supposed to be against standard practice for all Federal agencies.
John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson do a good job of summarizing the relevant law and agency policies regarding electronic records retention, and from that they reach the conclusion that the agency is lying when it says that it lost Lerner’s emails. The other possibility, of course, is that communication was being conducted outside of official channels, which at the very least would have been a serious deviation from standard procedure, and may well constitute a violation of Federal Law under the right circumstances. Even leaving the accusation that the agency is lying here, though, it’s still fairly concerning that this would be the response to a request for records from a Congressional oversight committee. At the very least, it would suggest that the laws and policies aren’t being followed. At the worst, it would suggest that someone tried to cover something up.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that there’s nothing nefarious in any of the missing email correspondence, and even that most of it is completely unrelated to the targeting scandal. Despite that, the odd circumstances under which the communications were supposedly lost is giving Congressional Republicans who have been pursuing this scandal an new issue to run with:
WASHINGTON — At least two House committees investigating the Internal Revenue Service are looking into whether the agency’s claim that it lost emails of interest to investigators amounted to obstruction and a violation of the agency’s own archival rules, congressional aides said on Monday.
Late Friday, the I.R.S. told investigators looking into accusations of politically motivated misconduct by the agency that two years’ worth of emails sent and received by the official at the center of the inquiry, Lois Lerner, had been destroyed because of a computer crash in mid-2011.
The disclosure, included in an I.R.S. filing to the Senate Finance Committee, added to suspicions among Republican lawmakers that the I.R.S. was not cooperating fully with the investigations into the agency’s treatment of conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status during the 2012 election cycle.
“We have a lot of questions,” said an aide to the Ways and Means Committee, which is focused on suspicions of obstruction. “How long have they known about this? What do you mean they’re completely gone?”
Separately, the House Oversight Committee is looking into the more technical question of whether the I.R.S. violated its own record-keeping rules and provisions of the Federal Records Act, an aide to that committee said. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, a Republican who is the Ways and Means chairman, said in a written statement on Friday: “The fact that I am just learning about this, over a year into the investigation, is completely unacceptable and now calls into question the credibility of the I.R.S.’s response to congressional inquiries.”
Mr. Camp called for an “immediate investigation and forensic audit by the Department of Justice as well as the inspector general.”
An investigation by the Treasury Department’s inspector general concluded that while I.R.S. employees had acted improperly, there was no evidence of political motivation or outside influence.
Republican lawmakers, after first demanding emails and other documents directly related to the agency’s scrutiny of political groups, later expanded their inquiry to include all emails sent and received by Ms. Lerner in an attempt to establish coordination between the I.R.S. and other agencies, including the Federal Election Committee, the Justice Department and the White House.
The I.R.S. initially provided 11,000 of Ms. Lerner’s emails that it deemed directly related to the applications for tax exemption filed by political groups. Under pressure from Republican leaders, John Koskinen, the I.R.S. commissioner, agreed to provide all of Ms. Lerner’s emails, but also repeatedly emphasized the labor costs involved in such an undertaking.
“If you want them all, we’ll give them all to you,” he told the House Oversight Committee in March, but he added that doing so might take years. Since then, the I.R.S. has provided roughly 32,000 more emails directly from Ms. Lerner’s account.
Interesting the IRS’s claims about lost email aren’t being well received by even the so-called “mainstream media.” Yesterday on his Sunday morning show, CNN’s John King essentially mocked the claim:
As did MSNBC’s Mika Brezinski on Morning Joe:
These media reactions are just a reflection of the fact that there’s just something about this revelation about lost email communications, conveniently made public as part of Washington’s traditional “Friday news dump,” or “Take Out The Trash Day’ as The West Wing referred to it. If proper procedures were followed then those communications should not have been lost at all. So, the fact that they were lost raises only a limited number of possibility. Either the backups exist somewhere but just haven’t been discovered, the backups existed but were destroyed, or Lerner was communicating with outside groups via methods that evaded the agency’s procedures. As I stated in my original post on this matter, I tend to believe that incidents like this can be ascribed more to bureaucratic incompetence than nefarious motives. However, the manner in which the IRS moved from saying that providing the records would be delayed because the scope of the project, a seemingly acceptable explanation given that we’re talking about roughly 32,000 emails, to the new explanation that some portion of those communications were lost makes the agency seem like the schoolchild trying to come up with excuses for why they didn’t do their homework. I honestly can’t blame Republicans in Congress if they aren’t placing much credibility in these claims at the moment, and I can guarantee that we’ll be hearing more about the mystery of the missing email in the future.