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June 18, 2014

MEGAN MCARDLE: Missing Email Is The Least Of The IRS’s Problems.

Naturally, many are suspicious that this is a convenient cover-up for destroying evidence, along the lines of the infamous missing 18 minutes of the Nixon tapes, which were allegedly erased when President Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, accidentally stepped on the recording pedal while answering the phone. The very least you can say is that the timing looks awfully suspicious: The sudden destruction of Lerner’s archived e-mail seems to have occurred on or around June 13, 2011, just 10 days after Representative David Camp sent a letter to then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman asking whether conservative groups were being targeted.

As it happens, I used to administer just the sort of e-mail systems that the IRS seems to be using. So I fired off a set of queries to the IRS about its e-mail system, its archiving policies and how the loss of data happened. Many of those queries remain unanswered, but I was given some documents that explain how the files could have been lost. My conclusion: It is plausible that this was an innocent coincidence. But it is only plausible if the IRS is managing its IT systems so badly that it is very easy to lose critical records — or for abusive employees to destroy the evidence of their misbehavior. A private company under investigation that responded to regulators, or a judge, with this sort of explanation rather than producing the requested documents would rightly expect to be handed an adverse judgment or a whopping fine. This incident should be thoroughly investigated, and steps should be taken throughout the government to make sure that no similar incident can ever happen again. . . .

To believe the IRS requires a pretty low opinion of government competence. My friends who work in regulated sectors such as finance are outraged by the IRS’s description of how it was running its backup process, because the government subjects them to constantly ratcheting standards for document retention — specifying how long, and on what format, they have to keep every communication ever generated by their firms. How dare they demand higher standards of regulated companies than they do of the regulators?

Standards are for the little people. But I favor collective punishment.