Jay Fleitman: About those ‘lost’ IRS emails

Last modified: Wednesday, July 02, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — The IRS has been accused of targeting conservative groups by selectively pulling their applications for tax-exempt status for prolonged scrutiny in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. By delaying and denying approval of those applications, these groups were purportedly kept sidelined from action during that political season.

Plan A for the defenders of this administration was to deny that this happened at all, and that liberal political groups had received similar scrutiny. Nobody at all bought that argument, and so Plan B was rolled out, which asserted that this targeted delay of the conservative groups was due to bad behavior on the part of a few misguided employees in the Cincinnati branch of the IRS.

This fell apart quickly as the agents in the Cincinnati branch produced proof that they were following orders issued by Washington.

Lois Lerner, the head of the division of the IRS responsible for handling these applications, was called before a congressional investigative committee in May 2013. Activity by one of the most powerful departments of the federal government selectively directed against the political opponents of an administration is simply a big deal. If true, this would represent an abuse of power by the federal government bordering on criminality, and worthy of dictatorships and autocracies that Americans disdain.

Lerner refused to answer questions, invoking her right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.

That the head of an IRS division accused of a serious abuse of power would take the Fifth Amendment in front of a congressional hearing was a major news story. This was remarkably reminiscent of the Watergate hearings that led to the resignation of President Nixon.

When I talked to a friend the next day about what he thought of these events, I was not at all surprised that he knew nothing about this story.

The congressional investigation has continued trying to define what Lerner did with her division of the IRS, and how high up in the administration this may have reached. Just this month, the new commissioner of the IRS, John Koskinen, informed the congressional investigative committee that Lerner’s computer hard drive crashed and emails sent outside the IRS to the Justice Department, the White House and a select group of Democratic senators had been lost. The hard drive crashed just around the time that this investigation began, and soon thereafter the backup memory for these emails at the IRS was erased. The computer hard drives of eight other IRS administrators in this division also failed at this same time and their emails were also lost.

The most recent talking points being trotted out by defenders of this administration is that there is simply no proof that anyone higher than Lerner was involved. That of course is why finding her missing emails is so important.

In the days that followed the revelations that the IRS had lost all this communication from Lerner and her division, and as the congressional hearing has gotten more heated, some stories have appeared in the more left-leaning media outlets, but they are not printed as front page stories and are given but scant minutes of broadcast time.

By not making prominent the story of a potentially great act of government corruption, these media outlets suggest that these matters are not important. If there proves to be an abuse of IRS power by this administration, media outlets that did not devote enough attention to this story will have been complicit.

I do not know how my fellow citizens on the left process what may be unfolding in this IRS scandal. Do they believe that nothing at all wrong has happened and that this is simply conservative paranoia or political manipulation? If no wrongdoing by the IRS has happened, it certainly must be conceded that what has come forward in these congressional hearings at least looks suspicious.

Or is this written off as something that all administrations do and so it is acceptable? Is it OK if the IRS is used for political purposes as long as your team is doing it? Is it simply impossible to consider that a Democratic administration is capable of such deep corruption?

There will be online postings and letters to the editor following this column. I look forward to an understanding of what Democrats think about what looks to me like a momentous scandal. I know what I think: that this is an act of profound corrosiveness to our system of government, and I’m very suspicious that in some manner this touches the White House.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.