The Latest on Lois Lerner’s “Lost” Emails, With a Bombshell At the End

The Internal Revenue Service claims, as of last Friday, that two years’ worth of Lois Lerner’s external emails are gone forever. You can read the letter in which the IRS told Senators Hatch and Wyden that Lerner’s external emails from 2009 to 2011, the critical time period for the IRS’s effort to suppress conservative nonprofits, have been lost, here. The letter is signed by Leonard Oursler, National Director for Legislative Affairs. If you keep reading, you eventually will get to the part about Lerner’s emails.

The IRS describes its system for storing emails. As I noted here, emails reside in user accounts on email servers:

The IRS email system runs on Microsoft Outlook. Each of the Outlook email servers are [sic] located at one of three IRS data centers. … For disaster recovery purposes, the IRS does a daily back-up of its email servers. … Prior to May 2013, these backups were retained on tape for six months, and then for cost efficiency, the back-up tapes were released for re-use. In May of last year, the IRS changed its policy and began storing rather than recycling its backup tapes.

Yes, I’ll bet they did! This is almost incredible. But wait, it gets worse. It turns out that each IRS employee, even senior managers like Lois Lerner, have ridiculously little space allotted to them on the un-backed up email servers:

Due to financial and practical considerations, the IRS has limited the total volume of email stored on its server by restricting the amount of email most individual users can keep in an inbox at any given time. …

Currently, the average individual employee’s email box limit is 500 megabytes, which translates to approximately 6,000 emails. … Prior to July 2011, the limit was lower, 150 megabytes or roughly 1,800 emails.

These are absurdly low limits. By way of comparison, the Power Line Gmail account currently contains 12,437 megabytes of material–83 times as much storage as was permitted to an IRS employee before July 2011. A senior employee like Lois Lerner would probably send or receive 1,800 emails in a few weeks at most, thereby exhausting (if the IRS’s account is believed) his or her allotted server capacity. At that point, the IRS reverted to manual document management. Seriously:

If an email user’s box gets close to capacity, the system sends a message to the user noting that soon the mailbox will become unable to send additional messages.

Given the tiny mailbox capacity, this must happen every few days.

When a user needs to create space in his or her email box, the user has the option of either deleting emails (that do not qualify as official records) or moving them out of the active email box (inbox, sent items, deleted items) to an archive. … Archived email is moved off the IRS email server and onto the employee’s hard drive on the employee’s individual computer. As a result, these IRS employees’ emails no longer exist in the active email box of the employee and are not backed-up as part of the daily backup of the email servers. Email moved to a personal archive of an employee exists only on the individual employee’s hard drive.

If this is true, it means that the IRS’s record-keeping is utterly inadequate. It has no systematic record of the decisions made and actions taken by IRS employees. Within six months, all centrally located and accessible email records–which, in today’s world, means more than 90% of the relevant documents–are gone. Records of the agency’s actions exist, after that time–if they exist at all–only on individual desktop or laptop computers, from which they cannot be accessed or reviewed in any efficient way. And forget about hard drive crashes, what happens when an employee gets a new computer, or is replaced by a new employee with his or her own computer? Are emails systematically copied from one computer to another so that the IRS will have a record of what the employee has done, assuming that the employee took the trouble to archive them in the first place? I doubt it.

My opinion of the federal government’s efficiency is not high, but I find it hard to believe that this is really how the IRS manages its records. I am not a tax lawyer, but I assume that any corporation subjected to an IRS audit, or any other kind of government investigation, that had this lousy a system of preserving records would be crucified.

That is all very interesting, but the question remains: did Lois Lerner really lose the only copies of her 2009-2011 emails in a hard drive crash? In its correspondence, the IRS tried to prove the point by attaching an email thread in which the agency’s IT professionals sadly advised Ms. Lerner that they had been unable to recover her missing files. But if you read to the end of the thread (i.e., the beginning) you see Lerner’s email of July 19, 2011, in which she laments the loss of “personal files” due to her computer’s crash, but never mentions any lost emails. Click to enlarge:

LernerEmail0449

It is remarkable that Lerner does not say: “Oh no! My hard drive crashed, and the IRS’s only copy of two years’ worth of my highly important work has been lost!” No: she is concerned about “my lost personal files,” because “there were some documents in the files that are irreplaceable.” That is a clearly stated and entirely reasonable concern, but it has nothing to do with losing the agency’s only record of two years of work.

If this is the best the IRS can come up with, it has much more explaining to do.

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