The IRS has come under withering scorn from the news that it lost emails it was under court order to retain, and that it failed to carry out the basic information security procedures it demands of taxpayers. To recover its much needed reputation for integrity, President Obama should call for an independent investigation to dispose of charges that the losses were a deliberate cover-up of partisan activities.
The emails pertain to findings by the inspector general of the IRS that it unfairly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012, and to suits by several groups that claim the IRS used illegal political criteria to deny their applications. There has also been a suit by Judicial Watch, a conservative non-profit, which filed a FOIA suit to obtain the missing emails.
Two federal district court judges have set hearings for today and Friday on why the IRS failed to notify their courts that certain subpoenaed emails were missing until late June, when it admitted in a congressional hearing that the losses had been discovered in February.
Meanwhile, a House committee continues its hearings into the charges of political interference by the IRS, accompanied by political rancor between the Republican majority and the Democratic minority. White House spokesman Josh Earnest on June 16 dismissed speculation that the data loss was deliberate as "indicative of" a conspiratorial view such as "the far-fetched skepticism expressed by some Republican members of Congress [which] is not at all surprising and not particularly believable."
What exactly occurred is still murky and under investigation, but the awkward fact remains that the lost emails are attributed to computer crashes afflicting two figures at the heart of the controversy.
The central figure in the controversy is senior IRS manager Lois Lerner, who asserted her Fifth Amendment right not to testify to Congress several months before retiring from the agency in September. The IRS told Congress last month that Lerner's computer hard drive crashed in 2011, that the data were unrecoverable and that it had not been backed up.
Yes, as White House spokesman Earnest said, computers crash, and sometimes technical recovery is not possible.
But it stretches credulity when the IRS says the same fate befell the computer of Nikole Flax, Lerner's assistant and later special assistant to then-IRS Director Steven T. Miller.
Or when it happens to the computers of five other IRS employees who worked in the office when the conservative groups came under special IRS scrutiny.
Ms. Flax, incidentally, was a frequent visitor to the White House and the Executive Office Building, according to the online Daily Caller, which cited 31 visits listed on White House logs, between July 10, 2010, and May 8, 2013, two days before the IRS scandal became news.
All of this may be attributable to innocent motives. But the White House is doing itself, and a critical agency of government, the IRS, no good by resisting a thorough independent investigation that includes, if necessary, an offer of immunity to Ms. Lerner.