It appears that the problem of exploding hard drives eating potentially incriminating emails of government employees is not limited to the Internal Revenue Service. The problem has now metastasized to the Environmental Protection Agency. Or so we are asked to believe.
Most Americans are familiar by now with the saga of Lois Lerner. She is the former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit who took the Fifth Amendment when hailed before congressional investigators in 2013. Lerner had admitted in a speech that the IRS had singled out tea party and other conservative groups for indefinite delays in their applications for non-profit status. Such treatment is illegal.
After being stonewalled, congressional investigators subpoenaed Lerner's emails from 2009 through 2011, the period during which the illegal targeting of conservative groups is alleged to have occurred. Congress wanted to know who else may have been involved. After months of being assured by the IRS that the emails would be produced, the IRS recently, rather fantastically, told Congress the most critical of those emails had been irretrievably lost - specifically, emails to outside entities such as the White House.
Lerner's hard drive crashed, you see, and all of the king's men couldn't put it back together again. And yes, there were backups of those emails, but retrieving them was difficult, so the IRS didn't go that route. After computer forensic types took a stab at recovering data on the hard drive itself, unsuccessfully we're told, a convenient decision was made to "recycle" it.
Of course many in Congress aren't buying that story and polls show most of the American people don't buy it either.
Now enter the EPA, which is at the center of its own controversy over alleged abuse of power. The EPA on Friday said it is endorsing an analysis that would effectively block development of Pebble Mine in Alaska. The gold-and-copper mine, if approved, would become the largest open pit mine in the world. Its location near the headwaters of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries makes it rightly controversial.
If an unbiased evaluation shows the operation would do significant harm to the fishery, it should be blocked. But there is a lot of evidence that the EPA analysis was rigged from the start. Specifically, there's evidence a former EPA official and Alaska-based biologist was working with environmentalists and tribal leaders to block the project as early as 2009.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sought to subpoena the former EPA employee, Philip North, but the committee was told he has disappeared. Eaten by bears, perhaps? So the committee sought emails and memorandums from North's computer. Enter EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who advised the committee that the documents they are most interested in can't be produced because, yes, you guessed it, North's computer crashed in 2010.
"We're having trouble getting data off of it â ¦ We're challenged in figuring out where those small failures might have occurred and what caused them to occur, but we've produced a lot of information," she said.
It is the same MO as in the Lerner case - we can give you some documents, just not the documents most germane to your inquiry, because you see, the computer ate them.
It's only natural that average Americans would be skeptical of such explanations, since they know what would happen to them if they were hailed before either of the offending agencies and made similar excuses. The Pebble Mine may or may not be a project that should go in the round file. But the EPA's credibility on the matter at this point is zero.