Late last week, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has been under investigation for singling out conservative tax exempt groups for special scrutiny, informed the House Ways and Means Committee it could not provide an unknown emails sent to and from Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS tax exempt office, between 2009 and 2011—the most important time period for the investigation.
Lerner's computer had crashed, and her hard drive failed, the IRS said, meaning that although the agency could reconstruct parts of her correspondence using other emails obtained internally, it could not provide emails sent to and from outside agencies and offices like, for example, the White House.
The explanation was awfully, suspiciously convenient—especially since it happened just 10 days after the Ways and Means Committee sent its first letter to the IRS asking for information about its investigations into non-profit groups.
At minimum, the crashed-computer excuse suggested a lax and unaccountable approach to record keeping that the IRS would almost certainly not tolerate in individuals, much less in a large corporate environment where email retention requirements have grown increasingly strict.
But the explanation was technically plausible. The IRS email storage protocols appear to have limited the size of employee inboxes, meaning that most backups were kept on individual hard drives. If Lerner's hard drive crashed, the emails stored on it could be unrecoverable.
Lerner's emails, however, are not the only records the IRS now says it cannot produce. The tax collection agency, which previously promised full disclosure of email and other records, has informed the Ways and Means Committee that it cannot submit records for six other IRS employees who were involved in targeting conservative groups, according to a press release issued today.
"One of those figures is Nikole Flax, who served as Chief of Staff to Steve Miller, who at the time of the targeting was Deputy Commissioner and would later serve as Acting Commissioner of the IRS – a position from which he was fired for his role in the targeting of conservative groups," the release says. "The timeframe for which Ms. Flax's communications are purportedly unrecoverable covers when the Washington, DC office wrote and directed the Cincinnati field office to send abusive questionnaires, including inappropriate demands for donor information, to conservative groups."
Flax was a frequent visitor to the White House, according to visitor logs.
It's unclear how the IRS lost the records associated with these additional employees, but the investigating committee says that the IRS has known that the records were lost for months—at least since February—yet despite the ongoing investigation did not inform committee members until much later.
The very best case here is that IRS record-keeping protocols were deeply negligent, and that the agency hid the fact of its negligence from investigators for months. No matter what happened, further investigation is warranted.
And that's what House Republicans have begun pushing for. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany, Jr. (R-La.) are calling for an independent prosecutor to investigate the case further.