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Believe me, as a columnist, commentator and talk-show host, nobody loves a scandal more than I do. Just the thought of verbally hanging some politician or bureaucrat for wrongdoing gets my juices flowing. The problem is, House Republicans don’t know a real scandal from a phony one. Today, we have one of each.
The real scandal’s the Department of Veterans Affairs. The fact that VA personnel cooked the books in order to pretend that nobody had to wait more than two weeks for a doctor’s appointment – while keeping some people waiting so long that they died first – is a disgrace. Compounded by the fact they received bonuses for cheating. Heads should roll, and the VA should get a housecleaning from top to bottom.
The phony scandal, yet the one Republicans are obsessed with, is the IRS. House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and others accuse the IRS of two crimes: unfairly singling-out conservative organizations for investigation of their tax-exempt status, in direct collaboration with the Obama White House; and accidentally losing, or deliberately hiding, thousands of emails to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner.
For the last 13 months, House Republicans have been working overtime trying to prove both charges. Yet, after 16 congressional hearings, 30 interviews with IRS employees, responses to 50 written congressional requests and the release of 750,000 pages of documents, they have come up with ZERO evidence to support either claim. That doesn’t mean they won’t stop trying – after all, everybody hates the IRS – but this so-called scandal’s going nowhere because, as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, “there is no there there.”
First, let’s take the targeting charge. Oops! After many Issa-generated false alarms, it turned out the IRS wasn’t just targeting conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Their BOLO, or “Be On the Look-out,” lists also included progressive organizations, like Progress Texas and Emerge America. Did they investigate more conservative than liberal organizations? Yes, but only because more conservative groups applied. But the point is that, in both cases, the IRS was making sure such applicants were, indeed, genuine charitable operations and not just political organizations trying to escape paying taxes, which is, after all, the IRS’ job.
Now to the missing emails. If you believe Chairman Issa, this proves that the IRS was engaged in an agency-wide criminal conspiracy, directed by Lois Lerner, to destroy evidence and thereby prevent Congress from ever learning the truth about what the IRS was up to. Yes, the lately-reported loss of emails during this time period may, indeed, look suspicious. But, once again, there’s zero evidence to back up Issa’s over-the-top charges. Let’s look at the facts.
Fact. As part of the 750,000 pages of documents provided to Congress, the IRS has already released 67,000 emails sent to or received from Lois Lerner during the time period under investigation, 2009 to 2011. In addition, the IRS has recovered, and sent to Congress, 24,000 other Lerner emails it was able to retrieve from the files of other IRS employees.
Fact. Computers do crash. Emails do get lost. Is there anyone alive today who has not experienced this problem? In this case, the IRS, as most of us would, did try to retrieve the lost emails – two years before Darrell Issa even began his investigation. According to documents provided Issa’s committee, the agency’s Information Technology (IT) division first tried, unsuccessfully, to solve the problem. The infected hard drive was then sent to the forensics lab of the IRS’s criminal division, which reported back to Lerner on Aug. 5, 2011: “Unfortunately, the news is not good. The sectors on the hard drive were bad, which made your data unrecoverable.”
Fact. Federal agencies have notoriously bad and antiquated computer systems, which make it almost impossible to store and retrieve valuable data. This is not a new problem. In fact, in 2007, the Bush administration admitted it had lost as many as 5 million emails related to, among other issues, the invasion of Iraq and the legal justification for torture. Curiously enough, at the time, Congressman Issa wasn’t too concerned. “But I think it’s fair that we recognize that software moves on,” he said in February 2008, “and that archiving in a digital age is not as easy as it might seem to the public.”
Not until the IRS under Barack Obama became a convenient political target did Darrell Issa consider lost emails a big deal. Now he’s turned it into a full-blown, yet phony, scandal.