Standards of Behavior

This past Friday, congressional investigators tasked with uncovering the truth behind the IRS targeting scandal were informed by the IRS that they would have to do without some of the information they requested. The agency said that emails sent or received between 2009 and 2011 to or by Lois Lerner, who stood at the helm of the division which processed applications for tax-exempt status, could not be retrieved. This was because Lerner’s computer had crashed, erasing thousands of emails.

As the IRS informed Congress, they were able to salvage over 24,000 of Lerner’s emails from that time period by pulling them off other people’s computers. But as the focus of the investigation was to determine whether or not there was coordination between Lerner and anyone at the White House, the fact that those external emails remain missing is troublesome.

This is not the first time a White House has lost emails.

In 2009, technicians were able to recover an amazing 22 million emails that the Bush administration had previously written off as lost when they were, in fact, mislabeled. Both instances point toward a stunning lack of accountability when it comes to recordkeeping in government. Meredith Fuchs, who now serves as the general counsel for the president’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said at the time that the Bush emails had been missing due to “poor choices” and that “there was little concern about the availability of e-mail records despite the fact that they … had a legal obligation to preserve [them].”

In Lerner’s case, Republicans contend that there may be something more sinister afoot.

In a letter accompanying a subpoena to IRS commissioner John Koskinen from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chairman Darrell Issa wrote: “I will not tolerate your continued obstruction and game-playing in response to the Committee’s investigation of the IRS targeting.” And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out on Tuesday that Congress had asked for these emails about a year ago, and were assured by the commissioner that they would be provided. And despite the fact that the IRS knew since February that the emails of Lerner and six other officials involved in the scandal were missing, McConnell says that they were only informed now.

Meanwhile the administration insists that there’s nothing troubling about these new developments. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the allegations “far-fetched” and pointed out that the IRS handed over more than 67,000 emails. Pursuing the missing emails, he said, was “indicative of the kinds of conspiracies that are propagated around this story.” But the fact that Democrats are so uninterested in these missing emails is troubling. Whatever one’s position is on political issues, the fact that officials under investigation had their emails disappear is something that most certainly warrants a second look.

While it may very well be true that Republicans are mostly motivated by the desire to score political points, that’s no reason this should not be investigated further. The beauty of the system of checks and balances of our republic is that the adversarial nature each branch has toward the others is sure to keep them in check. And there is one way to remove the conflict of interests from the investigative process.

That is by appointing a special prosecutor.

A special prosecutor would take the investigation out of the hands of a hyper-politicized Congress, and away from allegations of partisan bias. Turning the investigation over to an outsider will also make the investigation itself more effective, for those reasons.

There is, however, a much larger issue that this saga has brought to light. Apparently there are two standards, one for regular citizens, and another for government agencies. The IRS, as well as other government agencies, needs to be held, at the very least, to the same standard as that which private citizens are held to. In regard to this, there are two separate areas that should be discussed: the requirements and the penalties.

The IRS currently only backs up their emails for six months. Cleta Mitchell, an attorney for some of the groups that claim to have been targeted, says that the IRS disciplined her client because they hadn’t had backed-up emails for a full year. The irony of the IRS penalizing a group for not living up to a standard greater than that which the IRS itself was practicing was apparently lost on those officials. Considering that this was a problem that bothered liberal groups during the Bush years, it’s disappointing to see it hadn’t been addressed.

The other issue is that there isn’t currently a strong enough deterrent for those who may be engaging in behavior such as the destruction of emails. If the IRS were anything but a government agency, the mere fact that they were being investigated would put into place protocols that would make it very hard to destroy records undetected. And while anyone who actually did destroy evidence would be subject to criminal charges, there needs to be a system put in place that would hold those higher up responsible as well, as they would bear responsibility for what their employees do.

After all, the government is supposed to be, as Lincoln famously said, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and should be held to nothing less than the same standards as the people.