IRS e-mails: In contentious House hearing, the battle is for credibility

IRS commissioner John Koskinen told members of the House Ways and Means Committee, some disbelieving, that the loss of thousands of e-mails was not part of a coverup.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday prior to testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS.

There’s no other way to describe it. The news that a computer crash caused the loss of e-mails from former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner, who is at the center of investigations of the IRS, sounds like the old excuse that the dog ate my homework.

The IRS discovered the crash in February, but only revealed to Congress on June 13 that two years’ worth of Ms. Lerner’s e-mails were gone.

The revelation and its timing strain credibility, and that’s exactly what Republicans told the commissioner of the IRS, John Koskinen, at a tumultuous and partisan hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee Friday.

They described as “unbelievable” the latest turn in a case in which the Treasury Department found last May that the IRS was disproportionately scrutinizing conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

The questioning got personal, as an incredulous Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, told Mr. Koskinen, “I don’t believe you,” to which the even-tempered commissioner, with a highly respected résumé in the private and public sector, firmly replied: “I have a long career. That’s the first time anyone has said they do not believe me.”

Credibility is everything for an agency such as the IRS. It depends on trust – and the threat of an audit – to get millions of Americans to file their taxes on time and honestly. And so Koskinen did his best to restore credibility.

His answer to the “how could this happen” is basically that the IRS is not a high-tech Silicon Valley company.

Its 90,000 employees still use Windows XP, which Microsoft doesn’t even support anymore. Its operational budget, which includes spending on IT, has been cut in each of the last five years. Its “system of record” is not e-mail, as at some other agencies; it’s paper, he told reporters during a break.

Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the panel, pointed out that the Bush administration lost nearly 5 million e-mails related to the dismissal of US attorneys from 2003 to 2005. Hard drive crashes are not unusual at the IRS or at other workplaces. But even the IRS’s forensic lab in its criminal investigation division could not recover the data, Koskinen said.

As for accusations of a “coverup,” Koskinen replied that the reason for the time lapse between February (when e-mail patterns exposed a lapse in certain years that led the IRS to the discovery of Ms. Lerner’s computer crash) and now (when the IRS informed the committee of the hard-drive crash of not only Ms. Lerner but of several others in the case) was because of the danger of dribbling out information a little bit at a time.

In the last few months, for instance, the IRS was able to recapture from others’ computers 24,000 of Ms. Lerner’s e-mails from the time of the loss. It checked and rechecked to make sure no other e-mails were lost. It learned that Lerner herself had asked IT to look into the crash and was upset by it.

As an example of why, Koskinen argued, that it’s not a good idea to let developments come out piecemeal, he pointed to the Monday press release by Republicans on the committee, complaining that the IRS had lost other e-mails, including of another key figure in the case, Nikole Flax. Not true, the commissioner said at the hearing. Ms. Flax had two computers. One crashed but the other didn’t. The e-mails are intact.

“Those press releases with regard to Nikole Flax were inaccurate and misleading and it demonstrates why we’ll provide this committee a full report … when it is completed,” he said. “We are not going to dribble out the information and have it played out in the press.”

So far, the IRS has sent the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Senate Finance Committee more than 700,000 documents and more than 25,000 e-mails from Lerner. By the time it has finished handing over materials by the end of this month, the committees will have received 67,000 Lerner e-mails, Koskinen testified.

“There’ll always be a group of people who don’t believe the government is up to any good,” the commissioner said during a break. In this case, he stated, the evidence is “very clear” that there was no reason for anybody to “try to destroy” Lerner’s hard drive and that “there was a great effort made” to restore the e-mails.

“If somebody was trying to get rid of e-mails, that’s not the way you would do it.”

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