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IRS seeks help destroying another 3,200 hard drives

Loss of Lois Lerner emails amid tea party targeting probe unresolved

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2014

Days after IRS officials said in a sworn statement that former top agency employee Lois G. Lerner's computer memory had been wiped clean, the agency put out word to contractors Monday that it needs help to destroy at least another 3,200 hard drives.

The Internal Revenue Service solicitation for "media destruction" services reflects an otherwise routine job to protect sensitive taxpayer information, but it was made while the agency's record destruction practices remain under a sharp congressional spotlight.

Congressional investigators of the IRS targeting of conservative groups have been hampered by the unexplained destruction of emails and other records of Ms. Lerner, the former head of the IRS tax-exempt division and a central figure in the scandal.

The loss of Ms. Lerner's hard drive also raised broader questions about why the tax agency never reported the missing records to the National Archives and Records Administration, as required by the Federal Records Act.

While those questions remained unresolved, IRS officials signaled plans to destroy tens of thousands of additional electronic records.

"After all media are destroyed, they must not be capable of any reuse or information retrieval," IRS officials stated in the contract papers.

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the IRS scandal, said the committee has broad concerns about the agency's record-retention practices.

Dan Epstein, executive director of the watchdog group Cause of Action, said rules require the archivist to sign off on the destruction of federal records.

"This solicitation, combined with the failure of the IRS to consult the Archivist about Louis Lerner's hard drive, should put hesitation into any assumption that consultation with the Archivist is happening and prompt a thorough assessment of record retention at the IRS," Mr. Epstein said Monday.

IRS officials did not respond to emails and phone calls about the solicitation, including whether the agency's nonprofit division ever used the computers being destroyed.

Officials also declined to discuss how the IRS preserves records on computers targeted for destruction.

The agency estimates the need to destroy at least 65,464 magnetic tapes, 3,225 hard drives, 5,856 floppy disks and 708 reels, according to procurement records.

About 500,000 pieces of electronic data — including cassette tapes, reels, CDs, hard drives and USB media — have been collected since 2008, according to the IRS solicitation.

"Due to system changes, a significant amount of electronic portable media containing [personally identifiable information] and potentially sensitive but unclassified data such as taxpayer return information is being collected at IRS facilities and locked in secure storage areas awaiting destruction," officials wrote in a statement of work attached to the solicitation.

The IRS disclosed last week that it relies on contractors to recycle computer equipment. The revelation was made in an affidavit filed in a federal lawsuit in Washington by True the Vote, a conservative group that says it has been scrutinized by the IRS.

Stephen Manning, IRS deputy chief information officer, said in federal court in Washington that officials tried but failed to retrieve Ms. Lerner's records. He said the agency's internal computer "help desk" received word on June 13, 2011, that the hard drive on Ms. Lerner's laptop wasn't working properly and subsequent efforts to preserve data "were unsuccessful."

The computer has been wiped clean and recycled, he said, and officials have lost track of it because they don't keep track of hard drives by serial number.

Ms. Lerner's computer isn't the only crash of a hard drive that congressional investigators have encountered in their attempt to reconstruct record trails.

Last week, Republican senators sent a letter to Archivist of the United States David Ferriero after receiving reports that an Environmental Protection Agency official's hard drive had crashed just as congressional investigators began looking into questions about the EPA's review of an Alaska mining project.

Investigators sought computer records of a former EPA official, Phillip North, who later fled the country. More than a year after his retirement, senators said, EPA officials belatedly told the National Archives and Records Administration that they failed to preserve Mr. North's computer records.

"First the IRS, and now the EPA — these hard-drive crashes seem to be a growing epidemic throughout the administration," Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said in a statement. "This 'dog ate my homework' excuse is getting ridiculous."

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