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Another View -- Megan McArdle: How Lois Lerner could have lost potentially incriminating emails

June 19. 2014 9:55PM

Last Friday afternoon brought a disturbing news dump from the Internal Revenue Service: A big chunk of Lois Lerner’s email has disappeared. A hard drive crash, the agency says, permanently destroyed much of Lerner’s email in 2011, wiping out records from the previous two years.

This is the critical period during which some suspect she may have coordinated with the White House to target conservative nonprofits for special attention.

The very least you can say is that the timing looks awfully suspicious: The sudden destruction of Lerner’s archived email seems to have occurred on or around June 13, 2011, just 10 days after Rep. David Camp sent a letter to then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman asking whether conservative groups were being targeted.

I used to administer just the sort of email systems that the IRS seems to be using. My conclusion: It is plausible that this was an innocent coincidence. But it is only plausible if the IRS is managing its IT systems so badly that it is very easy to lose critical records — or for abusive employees to destroy the evidence of their misbehavior. As far as I can tell, the agency is using exchange servers with Microsoft Outlook email clients. In a system like this, messages are normally stored on the server. However, the IRS sharply limits the size of mailboxes. In 2009, the limit was 150 megabytes; by 2011, it had increased that to 500 MB. This is a low limit. According to documents provided by the IRS, Lerner was archiving her emails on her local hard drive, which developed fatal problems (bad sectors) in the middle of June 2011. The data proved unrecoverable despite heroic efforts on the part of the IT staff. Is this plausible? Unfortunately, yes. However, it’s also moronic IT policy. Hard drive space has been dirt cheap for more than a decade. The IRS’s policies on email storage were primitive even by the standards of 15 years ago, when I was working as a technology consultant. It should not have been possible for the IRS to lose more than a few days — at most a few weeks — of Lois Lerner’s email.

Such policies indicate either an agency that is not concerned with preserving good audit chains or one that has an extremely penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to IT policy.

The IRS’s response on this is that more storage is expensive (it would cost, it says, more than $10 million to upgrade the servers to handle unlimited mailboxes). It also complains that it’s incredibly time-consuming to manually search everyone’s hard drive. But it should have been able to get the job done in 10 minutes — by archiving Lerner’s email account and sending it to the investigators.

To believe the IRS requires a pretty low opinion of government competence. My friends who work in regulated sectors such as finance are outraged by the IRS’s description of how it was running its backup process, because the government subjects them to constantly ratcheting standards for document retention — specifying how long, and on what format, they have to keep every communication ever generated by their firms. How dare they demand higher standards of regulated companies than they do of the regulators?

In 2014, every government agency should be storing every email that goes in or out in an easily accessible format. That they weren’t bothering suggests that the IRS does not expect to deliver the kind of accountability that it routinely demands of taxpayers.

Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle writes on economics, business and public policy. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down.”

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