Frisking the Feds

In a well-oiled democracy, government should be self-correcting. Checks, balances, accountability, and fairness should be built in. And such mechanisms are particularly important in government's enforcement arms.

So it's good to see them operate, even if with less than flawless efficiency, in America's FBI and IRS.

Remember a couple of years ago, when the story broke about sloppy work in the FBI's vaunted crime lab? A Justice Department inspector general found multiple instances of poor record keeping and exaggerated testimony by lab personnel.

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A special review panel was set up by Justice to filter through more than 3,000 cases to see if bad lab work had resulted in wrongful convictions. Now the review is nearing its end, and, despite little doubt that a number of FBI technicians had done poor work, not a single conviction has been overturned or new trial granted.

This could, as some argue, reflect the fact that in few instances was the lab testimony critical. Or it could be at least partly tied to the fact that no defense lawyers were represented on the review panel. Only prosecutors, including the Justice Department's staff, were invited.

It's good the review was done, but the checks and balances would have been better and the fairness enhanced if the defense had been given an opportunity to view the evidence.

Now, the IRS. Two years ago, Congress's watchdogs were put on the agency's trail. Horror stories were unearthed about harassment of taxpayers by tax collectors whose zeal knew no bounds. That stimulated legislation that set up a new, permanent watchdog, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, and specified that any IRS agents found in the future to be harassing the taxpaying public would be fired.

The new law has generated a flow of complaints about alleged harassment, but of the more than 800 filed so far not a single one has been upheld by the inspector general or the IRS. Moreover, some of the earlier cases highlighted in congressional hearings were found to have holes.

The law, however, has had an impact. Since its passage, IRS audits are way down. The tax collectors are too worried about their jobs to be aggressive. But what about cracking down on tax cheats, another popular cause on Capitol Hill?

This check, too, may have to be rebalanced.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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