EDITORIAL: IRS: ‘The dog ate the emails’

The IRS uses a schoolboy’s excuse to escape congressional scrutiny

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Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s personal secretary, took the blame four decades ago for a mysterious 18-minute gap in an audio tape-recording of what was going on in the Oval Office during the Watergate investigation. Now the IRS wants us to believe that information technology has scarcely advanced from the days of reel-to-reel tape-recordings. The dog ate Lois Lerner’s emails.

For three years, Congress has been investigating Mrs. Lerner’s role in harassing the Tea Party, yet the IRS waited until last Friday to tell House committees that emails from the scandal’s central figure were “lost” in a hard-drive crash that conveniently left a two-year gap in Mrs. Lerner’s email record.

This is awfully familiar. How long before President Obama is standing behind a White House podium to proclaim he’s not a crook? Using the tax man to go after political enemies is one of the primary offenses in the articles of impeachment that brought down the Nixon administration.

In 1972, Miss Woods demonstrated that she could erase the tape “accidentally” by holding a pedal beneath her foot while reaching far across her desk to hold the erase button. The “Rose Mary Stretch” was hard to believe then, and it’s a bigger stretch to ask anyone to believe that no one at the agency responsible for handling the $2.9 trillion it collects from American taxpayers annually has ever heard of backup software.

It’s especially implausible since federal law says such records must be maintained in a way that prevents them from disappearing. The National Archives and Record Administration makes the rules for storage of executive branch records, and its rules say: “Agencies shall back up electronic records on a regular basis to safeguard against the loss of information due to equipment malfunctions or human error. Duplicate copies of permanent or unscheduled records shall be maintained in storage areas separate from the location of the records that have been copied.”

What would be the reaction of an IRS auditor if a businessman were to offer the “hard drive crash” defense for missing receipts documenting his business-expense deductions? He might find himself in handcuffs.

This act of defiance should be the final straw for the congressional investigating committees, but they find an obstacle in the way. Nixon used the Saturday Night Massacre to get rid of pesky prosecutors. Mr. Obama has Attorney General Eric Holder running defense. There won’t be a prosecutor, special or otherwise, appointed if he has anything to say about it. He has already been found in contempt of Congress over the Fast and Furious scandal, and Mrs. Lerner has been found in contempt for her selective testimony before Congress.

Congress must be more forceful in asserting its prerogatives. The House Ways and Means Committee has summoned IRS Commissioner John Koskinen to appear next week to answer questions about this latest excuse for failing to produce documents. The panel’s chairman, Dave Camp, is rightly furious at the administration.

“Frankly,” says Mr. Camp, “these are the critical years of the targeting of conservative groups that could explain who knew what, when, and what, if any, coordination there was between agencies. Instead, because of this loss of documents, we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone.” That’s a stretch Rose Mary Woods couldn’t make.

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