Suppose the Internal Revenue Service decided to audit you. Suppose you told them under oath that you had done nothing wrong, and then invoked the Fifth Amendment. Suppose they then subpoenaed all of your documents supporting your tax returns, and you told them you lost them all in a computer crash. Suppose your computer had a backup system but you told the IRS the documents they want were not backed up. And suppose just to complete the circle that all the people you got the documents from - banks, accountants, brokers - all had computer crashes too, on the very dates the IRS is interested in, so you can't get the records from them either.
Do you suppose you, the average citizen, might be doing a perp walk after all of that?
Yet stripped to its essence, this is the story the former head of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Unit is now telling Congress. Lois Lerner was at the reins of the unit when it allegedly went after tea party and other conservative non-profits in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Lerner famously testified she had done nothing wrong and then invoked the Fifth Amendment when hailed before congressional investigators in 2013.
More recently Congress subpoenaed Lerner's emails from 2009 though 2011, the period during which the illegal targeting of conservative groups is alleged to have occurred. After months of promising the emails would be delivered, IRS officials a few days ago announced that the emails had been "lost." Fantastically, the missing emails are mainly messages to and from the White House and other offices and departments outside the IRS.
IRS officials contend the emails were lost because Lerner's computer hard drive "crashed" in mid-2011. Further, she apparently was not the only IRS employee in Congress' sights to suffer such misfortune. GOP Rep. Dave Camp, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, says he has been told the IRS has lost emails from six other employees as well. The IRS claims its forensic staff attempted to recover information from Lerner's hard drive at the time of the crash but failed, and the hard drive was subsequently "recycled."
But cracks are starting to appear in that story. First, we will note anecdotally that most email systems we are familiar with don't store emails on individuals' hard drives - they store them, or copies of them, on a companywide email server, which is routinely backed up. And indeed, a story emerged over the weekend that the IRS had a contract through at least 2009 with an email archiving company called Sonasoft to back up its email system. If so, restoring Lerner's lost emails should have been a simple and routine undertaking, technologically speaking.
So the sudden announcement that Lerner's emails (at least the ones that matter - the IRS has turned over 24,000 Lerner emails to people within the IRS itself) magically disappeared and couldn't be retrieved is pretty hard to swallow. The claim that emails of six more IRS employees also evaporated during the relevant time period (More hard drive explosions? That's currently unclear) is even more far-fetched.
The problem the IRS faces here is that although it has, for partisan reasons, some defenders in Congress, virtually no one among the American public who regularly uses email is going to believe this story. And we don't believe it either.
Since Biblical days, no one in society is more despised than a corrupt tax collector. And corruption is what the Lerner case is all about. The IRS is merciless when it goes after taxpayers, demanding receipts for every expense, prescription or donation going back for years. Yet the agency expects the public to buy this story and simply shrug its shoulders?
That won't happen. All politics aside, Congress is right to keep pursuing this episode. There is no credible defense for the IRS' position here and it's not fair to the American public to allow the agency to skate by with these ridiculous claims.