Lois Lerner managed to contain her disappointment when she learned in 2011 that she had lost two years’ worth of emails — forever. After being told that her data was being sent to the “hard drive cemetery,” never to return, Lerner replied with philosophical equanimity, “Sometimes stuff just happens.”
Yes, the IRS is incredibly susceptible to stuff happening.
First, it happened when the agency singled out the applications of conservative groups for special scrutiny and delayed their applications for tax-exempt status prior to the 2012 elections.
Then it happened when then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman went before Congress in March 2012 and denied that the targeting was taking place.
It kept happening last year, when Lerner arranged to reveal the targeting via a planted question at a tax conference, and proceeded to falsely blame a few rogue employees in the Cincinnati office.
It is still happening now, as the IRS failed to tell Congress about the missing Lerner emails until two weeks ago.
So much stuff happens at the IRS that top officials must routinely break mirrors, open umbrellas indoors and spill salt. They set out to fairly administer the nation’s tax laws and through a series of bad breaks ended up applying them lopsidedly against their ideological enemies. They intended to cooperate fully and frankly with investigations into their unfair practices; through circumstances beyond their control, they haven’t pulled it off.
Lerner had her computer meltdown in June 2011, around the time Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Dave Camp asked the IRS about its treatment of the primary donors to one conservative 501(c)(4) group — in retrospect, one of the first signs of targeting conservatives.
That the emails were lost beyond recovery will strike most people as implausible, because it is practically an axiom of modern life that emails never go away. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the IRS is so incompetent and its bureaucracy so archaic (it was using tape to back up emails) that it can’t manage to preserve what most people can’t get rid of. This, in fact, amounts to the IRS’s best defense.
But the IRS has hardly earned the benefit of the doubt. Its instinct when the scandal broke was to try to cover up the role of Lerner and other Washington officials who were intimately involved in the targeting.
As for the missing Lerner emails, the House Oversight Committee requested them last year, then subpoenaed them twice. No one at the IRS bothered to mention that some of them no longer existed (the emails within the IRS have apparently been recovered, but the ones to other agencies and outsiders have not). When IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress in March, he couldn’t bring himself to let them in on the fact that there might be a problem with the emails.
Even if the destruction of Lerner’s correspondence was an innocent coincidence, all of this reeks of bad faith and is itself scandalous. We aren’t talking about getting to the bottom of wrongdoing at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names or the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization. This is the IRS, the most intrusive and demanding agency of the federal government. Yet it can’t straightforwardly cooperate with an investigation into misconduct that — once upon a time — outraged even the president of the United States.
As time has passed, President Barack Obama has grown much mellower about this little unpleasantness at the IRS. He could order the White House and every other agency of government to undertake a search for emails received by Lois Lerner tomorrow. He could order the director of the FBI to undertake a forensic review of what happened to them. Instead, he is clearly hoping that the IRS scandal becomes another Benghazi, a watchword in the press for an irrational inability of Republicans to “move on.”
Republican investigators will, regardless and rightly, keeping asking questions. Knowing its rotten luck, the IRS won’t be able to answer.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.