- - Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The IRS systematically loses and destroys important federal records. Even if you request a file from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under the Freedom of Information Act, there’s no guarantee the agency will make a serious attempt to find your documents.

This is the finding of a new report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) — a government watchdog whose purpose is to detect fraud, waste and abuse within the IRS. Under IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, TIGTA has no shortage of work.

TIGTA tells the story of a man who, upon leaving his job at the IRS, left his laptop with a secretary. “That employee was under a litigation hold to ensure that relevant evidence was preserved for use in litigation,” TIGTA discloses. “However, without a policy in place to ensure that laptops of separating employees under litigation holds were maintained, that laptop was sent to the IT organization for standard sanitization and disposal.”

Even when the IRS saves a laptop or hard drive, it often fails to index the hardware’s last user to its storage location — effectively burying records forever. The IRS then purchases new laptops for its employees, allowing its 32,000 used laptops and hard drives to rest in peace — full of inaccessible information.

Hoarding thousands of laptops is just one of the many instances of IRS waste. Although the agency strictly monitors budgets for businesses across the country, it is unable to control its own unjustifiable spending. In 2016, the IRS squandered $12 million on an unusable email system. A previous TIGTA report noted, “The purchase was made without first determining project infrastructure needs, integration requirements, business requirements, security and portal bandwidth, and whether the subscriptions were technologically feasible on the IRS enterprise.”

It is now apparent that frequent shifts in IT procedures — an entirely avoidable occurrence — have jeopardized the agency’s records. The agency’s software does not auto-archive emails, but requires employees to manually save important correspondence. No external checks are performed to verify that employees follow procedure. Indeed, TIGTA found that 20 percent of the senior executives they surveyed were not archiving emails as instructed.

The crumbling state of IRS record keeping was first exposed during the IRS conservative targeting scandal. Former IRS unit director Lois Lerner’s hard drive crashed, and the IRS subsequently wiped and destroyed the hard drive. Although Ms. Lerner’s correspondence had been backed up, the IRS magnetically wiped 422 of the 424 backup tapes. An estimated 24,000 of Ms. Lerner’s emails were lost in the process, preventing the public from obtaining critical information. Ms. Lerner even convinced a judge to withhold her testimony from the public, further obscuring her role in the affair.

The latest TIGTA report confirms the agency’s neglect and incompetence when it comes to the preservation of critical federal records. It also notes that when the agency attempted to fulfill FOIA requests, it failed to search all available sources. This was certainly true during the Lerner debacle, when the IRS only searched one of the six available devices containing her emails.

Lawmakers are now demanding an explanation from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Rep. Kevin Brady and Rep. Vern Buchanan wrote in a letter to Mr. Koskinen, “Failure to retain and produce records reduces transparency, inhibits Congressional oversight, and opens the IRS to judicial sanctions during litigation.”

The TIGTA report suggests a culture of carelessness and secrecy within the IRS. Perhaps if records were readily available for the public to review, the agency would strive to reach a higher standard of competence.

• Elizabeth McKee is federal affairs associate at Americans for Tax Reform.

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