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Lois Lerner and the IRS' crisis of credibility

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June 24, 2014 | comments

By the Racine Journal Times Editorial Board

“I am sitting here listening to this testimony. I just — I don’t believe it. That’s your problem. Nobody believes you.”

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that Friday to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the IRS’s lost emails from Lois Lerner, the official at the center of the scandal regarding the tax agency’s alleged targeting of conservative groups. Her unit of the agency oversees tax-exempt groups. Ryan questioned the truthfulness of what Koskinen was saying after Koskinen said that six IRS officials — all six under investigation by the Ways and Means Committee — had their computer hard drives crash and, therefore, the emails from Lerner were irretrievably lost.

Koskinen responded to Ryan’s public questioning of his integrity by saying: “I’ve had a long career. This is the first time anybody has ever said they don’t believe me.”

“I don’t believe you,” Ryan replied.

It does strain, if not break, the limits of believability to be told that all of the computer hard drives that could shed light on the Lerner emails have crashed, doesn’t it?

On May 10, 2013, Lerner apologized for the actions of, she said, a few low-level employees in the Cincinnati office who had inappropriately put groups with conservative views under heightened scrutiny. The surprise apology, Edward Morrissey of The Week reported Wednesday, turned out to be a strategy to pre-empt an Inspector General report that revealed more depth and breadth to the practice than Lerner first indicated. Subsequent testimony showed that senior IRS officials knew of the practice as early as 2011, even though Congress was repeatedly told that no such targeting had taken place.

Within days, three congressional committees — Ways and Means and Oversight in the House and the Senate Finance committee — began investigations into the scandal at the IRS. The committees demanded testimony from Lerner and other IRS officials. On May 22, 2013, Lerner refused to testify. Her invocation of her Fifth Amendment rights resulted in a contempt charge against Lerner on which the Department of Justice has yet to act.

Both the House and Senate committees demanded Lerner’s email records. A letter sent to acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller on May 20, 2013, from the chair and ranking member of the Finance Committee requested copies of “any and all questions, questionnaires, and information requests used by the IRS” to tax-exempt applicants, all documents “between any IRS employee and anyone else, including, but not limited to, individuals outside of the IRS” that related to the first set of documents, and especially “documents relating to communications between any and all IRS employees and any and all White House employees including, but not limited to, the president” that related to any targeting strategy. The IRS fought for months to keep those records private.

But the attempt to claim that the emails are lost, combined with Lerner’s refusal to testify, makes the IRS look incredibly suspicious. Especially because, as Morrissey writes, in any professional working environment a single hard-drive crash would not destroy the emails. The data would still reside on the servers and could be reconstituted from the backups.

Do you know which IRS official acknowledged that the requested emails reside on the servers? Koskinen.

Asked in a March hearing by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, “You go in and you check the ‘sent’ box, and the inbox, and you suddenly have all of the emails, correct?” Koskinen replied: “Right. They get taken off and stored in servers, and you’ve got 90,000 employees ...” Chaffetz interrupted and said “I’m asking you to find one,” namely, Lois Lerner.

“The claim that the IRS recycles its backup tapes every six months is equally ludicrous,” Morrissey writes. “The federal government has more strict expectations for publicly held corporations. Sarbanes-Oxley regulations passed more than a decade ago specifically require retention of email data for five years, and make the kind of destruction claimed by the IRS in this instance a crime punishable by 20 years in prison.”

Of course, what’s additionally galling is that it’s the IRS — the government agency that expects you and I to retain our tax records for years — that claims it can’t find the paperwork Congress is lawfully demanding it produce.

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t believe the IRS. Only those with partisan blinders or utter ignorance of the IRS’ claims could possibly believe the IRS these days.

The calls for a thorough investigation of the IRS’ actions toward conservative groups are justified. The American people deserve to know whether officials in their government used the government’s power to harass people and groups based solely on their political affiliations; if that is found to be the case, they deserve to know who directed such abuse of power, and they deserve to see that those abusers are punished.


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