EDITORIAL: IRS excuses for obstruction suggest cover-up

Do the folks at the Internal Revenue Service think we’re stupid? They must if they believe Americans will buy the agency’s increasingly suspicious explanations for its lack of cooperation with congressional investigators.

The House Ways and Means Committee had requested the email messages of former official Lois Lerner from the IRS as part of the panel’s investigation into the agency’s targeting of conservative groups. After a year of dragging its feet, the agency just days ago informed committee chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., that more than two years of her emails had been lost when her computer’s hard drive crashed. And it turns out the agency had known as far back as February that the email records were lost, yet it failed to share that information with the committee. Hmm.

Ms. Lerner was in charge of the division that delayed and derailed applications for tax-exempt status submitted by politically conservative organizations after the tea party movement delivered Republican gains in the 2010 election. She retired last year amidst the controversy, and the House voted last month to hold her in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the inquiry. Rep. Camp says Ms. Lerner’s missing emails cover a critical period of time coinciding with the beginning of the targeting campaign.

But Ms. Lerner wasn’t the only IRS official with computer problems. News broke this week that emails from six other employees involved in the targeting of conservative groups are missing, as well. Among those six is Nikole Flax, who was chief of staff to former IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, who resigned as a result of the scandal. That’s a lot of coincidental, simultaneous, devastating hard drive crashes.

But wait! There’s more!

Earlier this week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaed Ms. Lerner’s supposedly crashed hard drive. But it was reported Wednesday that Ms. Lerner’s hard drive was discarded in 2011 and is now likely gone forever. How very fortunate for Ms. Lerner.

“If the IRS truly got rid of evidence in a way that violated the Federal Records Act and ensured the FBI never got a crack at recovering files from an official claiming a Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, this is proof their whole line about ‘losing’ emails in the targeting scandal was just one more attempted deception. Old and useless binders of information are still stored and maintained on federal agency shelves; official records, like the emails of a prominent official, don’t just disappear without a trace unless that was the intention,” Rep. Issa said in a statement.

Imagine how it would play with IRS if, amid an audit, a taxpayer said his crashed hard drive had been thrown out. Hello, prison.

We know that Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations, urged the IRS to investigate, delay and otherwise impede conservative nonprofit groups and to get it done well before the 2012 election. We know the targeting was directed from Washington and wasn’t the work of rogue officials in Cincinnati, as the IRS and the Obama administration initially claimed.

This is not a partisan witchhunt. It is an inquiry to determine whether a federal agency conspired with elected members of a political party to influence the outcome of an election. And it already screams of a cover-up.

This fiasco is an inevitable byproduct of the staggering amount of power the IRS has built off the complexity of its tax code, which allows the agency to intrude on almost every facet of our lives, from child care to health care to political activism. Holding Ms. Lerner and others accountable — whether through mass firings or criminal prosecutions — won’t be enough to rein in the IRS. The best way to prevent the IRS from abusing its power is to take away its power through massive tax reform and simplification.

Abused taxpayers and elected representatives need not make the argument. The IRS is taking care of that all by itself.