Roger’s Rules

A Word of Encouragement for IRS Commissioner John Koskinen

It’s only recently that I became aware of  John Koskinen, who was sworn in as the 48th commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in December 2013. Mr. Koskinen is obviously a smart chap: BA magna cum laude in physics from Duke; member of Phi Beta Kappa; a JD, cum laude, from Yale; and post-graduate work at Cambridge University. Watching snippets of his testimony before Congress on June 20th and June 23rd about the Case of the Missing Emails, however, I had to wonder whether, in all his years working for Freddie Mac and trying to salvage the Teamsters pension plan, he had ever managed to take on board Walter Scott’s famous couplet from “Marmion:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!

This was not Mr. Koskinen’s first time testifying, under oath, before Congress about the ever-broadening IRS scandal. Back in March, Mr. Koskinen faced a demand that the IRS produce “every single email [sent by Lois ‘I-take-the 5th’ Lerner] in the time period in the subpoena.”

“Will you commit to provide all those emails?”

“Yes, we will do that,” answered Koskinen.

Words are funny things, though.  What do you suppose the congressman meant by “all” and “every single email”?

If you’re just an ordinary Joe or Jill, the sort of schlump folks like John Koskinen and Lois Lerner are used to pushing around, you might have thought that Congressman Jim Jordan, who made the demand, wanted the IRS to turn over, you know, all of Lois Lerner’s emails from the period under review, that is, he wanted the IRS to produce every single email from the specified period.

Are we clear about that? (In case you think the request was ambiguous, look at this footage.)

On March 26, Mr. Koskinen said (I paraphrase), “Sure, boss, no problem: you want all the emails of la Lerner, I promise to get you all the dame’s emails.”

That was March 26th. On that date, according to Mr. Koskinen’s sworn testimony, he had no idea that he didn’t have access to all of Lois Lerner’s emails because, gosh darn, her hard drive failed and, wouldn’t you know it, they had no backup and, what’s more,  Lerner’s hard drive had been “recycled.”

So he couldn’t produce all the emails because (as far as we know right now) many of the emails are lost. The IRS, Mr. Koskinen testified, knew about the lost emails in February, but no one told him, the commissioner of the agency, this interesting fact until April.

It’s nice that it was April, because had it been anytime before March 26, a skeptical observer might conclude that John Koskinen had been economical with the truth when he testified before Congress on March 26th and promised to hand over all the emails.

Just as the IRS forgot or neglected — at least, they said, according to Mr. Koskinen, that they forgot or neglect — to tell him that 2 years’ worth of emails had gone missing, so Mr. Koskinen forgot or neglected to tell Congress about this most interesting fact when (according to him) he found out about it in April. Exactly when in April?  He can’t remember. Who told him?  He can’t remember that either. After all, the IRS has 90,000 employees (think about that!) and, after all, it was filing season. He was busy.

What do you think about that gambit? Convinced?

Or how about this: the IRS, which requires individuals to keep records for 7 years, only keeps emails for 6 months. Mr. Koskinen also testified that they cap the number of emails they save at 6,000. Why? Because their servers are overloaded. The head of the IRS said that it would cost between $10 and $30 million to upgraded their servers to accommodate a full backup.

Now to you or me, $10 million is a lot of money.  But to the IRS?  According to Darrell Issa, their IT budget alone is $1.8 billion.  If I did the math right, $30 million is 0.016 percent of the IRS’s IT budget. 0.016 percent.

Here’s the bottom line.  The IRS has been accused of targeting the political opponents of the Obama administration. The response, in rough order of emission, has been:

1. No they didn’t. It was all (quoth the president of the United States) a “phony scandal.”

2. They targeted liberal groups too (except the IRS inspector general disagrees).

3. It was all the fault of two “rogue agents” in Cincinnati (that was Jay Carney’s little piece of drollery)

4. Then we had Barack Obama’s personal assurance that there was not even a “smidgeon of corruption” at the IRS.  “Smidgeon, noun. Informal:  a small amount of something.” There wasn’t even a small amount of corruption at the IRS—which is why, of course, a senior agency employee like Lois Lerner decided to take the Fith Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.

Mr. Koskinen’s testimony over the last several days has been greeted with what might politely be called skepticism, not to to say naked disbelief and contempt, by Congress. “You promised to produce documents,” Darrell Issa reminded Mr. Koskinen. “You did not. . . .

You worked to cover up the fact they were missing and only came forward to fess up on a Friday afternoon after you had been caught red-handed.”

Some might say that John Koskinen was guilty of obstruction of justice. Currently, the Wikipedia entry for “Obstruction of Justice” lists four “notable examples” of the crime.  Leading the list is Richard Nixon’s efforts to silence people involved in the Watergate scandal.  I wonder whether there will soon be a fifth notable example. If so, it is likely to include the names of John Koskinen, Lois Lerner, and who knows how many people at the White House.

Listening to John Koskinen’s testimony, it’s difficult not to conclude that instead of heeding Walter Scott’s admonition, he inclined to the later improvement by J. R. Pope in “A Word of Encouragement”:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!
But when we’ve practiced quite a while
How vastly we improve our style!

Related: 

Congress Won’t Get Anywhere on the IRS Investigation with John Koskinen