IRS scandal: Lerner's lost e-mails have Republicans charging coverup

The IRS is blaming a computer crash for losing two years' worth of e-mails for Lois Lerner and five other agency employees. Pundits have invoked the legacy of Rose Mary Woods.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
This March 5, 2014 file photo shows former Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Internal Revenue Service has lost more emails connected to the tea party investigation, congressional investigators said Tuesday. The IRS said last Friday it had lost an untold number of emails when Lois Lerner's computer crashed in 2011.

The never-say-die congressional investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s treatment of politically active social welfare groups is getting hot again, this time over disappearing e-mails.

The agency revealed Friday it had lost two years of potentially incriminating e-mails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who has been at the center of the investigation, and on Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee found that five more IRS employees had also lost e-mail correspondence.

The lost e-mails have sparked a new round of criticism among conservative commentators and GOP leaders, many of whom are suggesting that the latest revelations are just one more piece of a vast IRS coverup.

The Ways and Means Committee began its investigation after a Treasury Department audit in May 2013 found that the IRS was inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

To ensure that social welfare groups were not engaging in political activity that would void their tax-exempt status, the IRS, as early has 2010, had been examining the finances of groups with political phrases such as “tea party” and “progressive” in their name. While it reviewed both conservative and liberal organizations, it scrutinized conservative groups disproportionately. This imbalance resulted in a slew of high-level IRS resignations in May 2013, and a criminal probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

On Friday the House committee received an IRS document indicating that Ms. Lerner, the former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit, lost two years of e-mails dating back to 2009 in a computer crash in 2011.

Four days later, on Tuesday, the IRS revealed that six more of its employees, some high-ranking, also lost much of their e-mail correspondence between 2009 and 2011 due to the crash. Among them was Nikole Flax, chief of staff to former acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.

The disclosure sparked Republican anger and skepticism.

“The time for which Ms. Flax’s communications are unrecoverable covers when the Washington, D.C. office wrote and directed the Cincinnati Field Office to send abusive questionnaires, including inappropriate demands for donor information, to conservative groups,” House Republicans said in a press release.

The statement notes that Flax visited the White House 15 times during the two-year period in question — though, according to PoliticoPro, most of these visits concerned the new health-care law.

“Who was she visiting at the White House and what were they talking about? Was she updating the White House on the targeting or was she getting orders? These are answers we don’t have yet, because – surprise, surprise – a few computers crashed,” the House Republicans said.

In addition to questioning the timing of the computer crash, some commentators have also doubted the technical plausibility of e-mails disappearing into cyber-space with no chance of recovery.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal Monday, conservative journalist James Taranto compared Lerner to Richard Nixon's longtime secretary Rose Mary Woods, who was once famously photographed re-creating the unlikely pose that she said caused her to accidentally destroy a portion of President Nixon’s controversial and damaging White House tapes.

“IT professionals from outside the administration say the Lois Stretch is quite a stretch, too,” Mr. Taranto wrote, citing the opinions of a number of computer science professionals.

The White House, for its part, stood behind the IRS Monday, saying the agency had made a “good-faith effort” to provide the requested e-mails and describing the conservative criticism as “unreasonable.”

Corroborating the White House’s claims on behalf of the IRS of a “good faith effort” are the 24,000 e-mails from Lerner during the 2009 to 2011 period that the IRS was able to collect from the hard drives of her correspondents. In one e-mail chain, stretching from July 19 to Aug. 16, 2011, Lerner asks a member of the IRS Information Technology Division to help her recover the rest of the lost e-mails.

“My computer skills are pretty basic, so nothing fancy – but there were some documents in the files that were irreplaceable,” writes Lerner. “Whatever you can do to help is much appreciated.

After three weeks, the IT correspondent wrote that the files could not be recovered.

Regardless of the IRS’s intentions, the agency may be guilty of incompetence. According to the IRS’s own guidelines, the organization is supposed to provide for “backup and recovery of records to protect against information loss and corruption." Congressional officials are also trying to determine whether the IRS broke the Federal Records Act, which sets standards for the documentation of government correspondence.

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