About those missing emails

About those missing emails

The Internal Revenue Service must explain how it was that valuable evidence was lost in a computer crash.

After months of hostile squabbling between a congressional committee and IRS officials, the question of what happened to thousands of missing emails has moved to a new forum.

Two federal judges in the District of Columbia — Reggie Walton and Emmet Sullivan — presiding in separate lawsuits have directed the IRS to explain under oath what happened to the emails of a top IRS official involved in the inappropriate targeting of organizations politically opposed to the Obama administration.

The IRS is, no doubt, unhappy about these orders. In fact, it should welcome them because they give the agency the opportunity to show impartial third parties (the courts) that no cover-up of misconduct occurred.

On the other hand, if it cannot demonstrate that the emails were lost by accident and are unrecoverable, the lawsuits and congressional inquiry will receive renewed energy.

The congressional inquiry began in 2013 after IRS official Lois Lerner first disclosed that so-called tea party groups were the subject of inappropriate targeting by the IRS when they filed applications for tax-exempt status. The IRS first claimed that the targeting was initiated by rogue agents working out of the IRS's Cincinnati office. However, that story fell apart when investigative trails led congressional sleuths to Lerner's office in Washington.

Lerner, now retired from the IRS, has refused to testify about the matter before a U.S. House committee, citing her constitutional right to remain silent.

When investigators sought to pursue the matter further, IRS officials recently disclosed that the agency in 2011 lost two years' worth of Lerner emails in a computer crash. Committee Republicans are skeptical of that explanation, suggesting it is simply too convenient to be credible.

Judge Walton has given the IRS a Friday deadline to submit a sworn affidavit by information technology officials. Judge Sullivan has given the IRS until Aug. 10 to submit a report to him on the same subject.

There is no question that the IRS has been less than forthright about this entire matter — for understandable reasons. Targeting taxpayers for harassment based on their political association is not just a crime but an assault on the democratic process. One of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon was that he attempted to use the IRS to harass his political opponents.

In this case, the harassment not only occurred but was extensive.

Just as Congress must get to the bottom of it, aggrieved taxpayers also must have their claims for damages heard in the courts. At the same time, the IRS also is entitled to demonstrate where it has been wrongfully accused of destroying evidence. One way or another, the judge-ordered inquiries should be useful.

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