Did the IRS Really Lose Lois Lerner’s Emails? Let a Special Prosecutor Find Them.

Obama needs to address this “phony scandal” and the public trust with real transparency.

Lois Lerner, former director of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), listens during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill March 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chairman Darrell Issa(R-CA) questioned witness Lerner, to see if the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting US citizens based on their political beliefs. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
June 13, 2014, 7:58 p.m.

A sloppy mis­take, the gov­ern­ment calls it, but you couldn’t blame a per­son for sus­pect­ing a cov­er-up — the loss of an un­told num­ber of emails to and from the cent­ral fig­ure in the IRS tea-party con­tro­versy. And be­cause the pub­lic’s trust is a fra­gile gift that the White House has frittered away in a series of second-term mis­steps, Pres­id­ent Obama needs to act.

If the IRS can’t find the emails, maybe a spe­cial pro­sec­utor can.

The an­nounce­ment came late Fri­day, a too-cute-by-half cliche of a PR strategy to mit­ig­ate back­lash. “The IRS told Con­gress it can­not loc­ate many of Lois Lern­er’s emails pri­or to 2011 be­cause her com­puter crashed dur­ing the sum­mer of that year,” the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted.

Lern­er headed the IRS di­vi­sion that pro­cessed ap­plic­a­tions for tax-ex­empt status. The IRS ac­know­ledged last year that agents had im­prop­erly scru­tin­ized ap­plic­a­tions for tax-ex­empt status by tea-party and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive groups.

At is­sue is wheth­er the IRS probes were polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated and dir­ec­ted by the White House. Con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­at­ors were hop­ing for an­swers in Lern­er’s emails.

The IRS also screened lib­er­al groups, which Demo­crats claim as proof that there was no ab­use of power. That’s wish­ful think­ing. The fact that lib­er­al groups were screened is mit­ig­at­ing, not dis­pos­it­ive.

Re­pub­lic­ans law­makers are prone not to trust any ex­plan­a­tion from the White House. Their most con­ser­vat­ive voters as­sumed from the start that the White House was tar­get­ing right-lean­ing groups for in­tim­id­a­tion.

“The fact that I am just learn­ing about this, over a year in­to the in­vest­ig­a­tion, is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able and now calls in­to ques­tion the cred­ib­il­ity of the IRS’s re­sponse to con­gres­sion­al in­quir­ies,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee. “There needs to be an im­me­di­ate in­vest­ig­a­tion and forensic audit by De­part­ment of Justice as well as the in­spect­or gen­er­al.”

Obama has adam­antly re­jec­ted the sug­ges­tion that the IRS was used for polit­ic­al pur­poses. “That’s not what happened,” he told Fox News in Feb­ru­ary. Rather, he said, IRS of­fi­cials were con­fused about how to im­ple­ment the law gov­ern­ing those kinds of tax-ex­empt groups. “Not even a smidgen of cor­rup­tion” oc­curred, he said. His al­lies dubbed it a “phony scan­dal.”

Six weeks after the scan­dal broke, I chas­tised House Re­pub­lic­ans for cherry-pick­ing evid­ence and jump­ing to con­clu­sions. In the same column, I urged the pres­id­ent to be trans­par­ent: pave way for in­vest­ig­at­ors to ques­tion wit­nesses un­der oath and sub­poena the White House and his own reelec­tion cam­paign for re­lated emails and oth­er doc­u­ments.

If forced to guess, I would say that the IRS and its White House mas­ters are guilty of gross in­com­pet­ence, but not cor­rup­tion. I based that only on my per­son­al know­ledge of — and re­spect for — Obama and his team. But I shouldn’t have to guess. More im­port­antly, most Amer­ic­ans don’t have a pro­fes­sion­al re­la­tion­ship with Obama and his team. Many don’t re­spect or trust gov­ern­ment. They de­serve what Obama prom­ised nearly six weeks ago — ac­count­ab­il­ity. They need a thor­ough in­vest­ig­a­tion con­duc­ted by some­body oth­er than dem­agogic Re­pub­lic­ans and White House al­lies.

Some­body like “¦ a spe­cial pro­sec­utor. Those words are hard for me to type two dec­ades after an in­no­cent land deal I covered in Arkan­sas turned in­to the run­away White­wa­ter in­vest­ig­a­tion.

Noth­ing has changed. The White House is stone­walling the IRS in­vest­ig­a­tion. The most be­nign ex­plan­a­tion is that Obama’s team is polit­ic­ally ex­pedi­ent and ar­rog­ant, which makes them des­per­ate to change the sub­ject and con­vinced of their in­sti­tu­tion­al in­no­cence. That’s bad enough. But without a fiercely in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion, we shouldn’t as­sume the ex­plan­a­tion is be­nign.

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