WASHINGTON — It wasn't just a hard drive crash that led the Internal Revenue Service to lose Lois Lerner's e-mails from the time Lerner was in charge of holding up tax exemption applications from conservative groups.
It was seven hard drive crashes, the lack of a centralized archive, a practice of erasing and reusing backup tapes every six months, and an IRS policy of allowing employees to decide for themselves which e-mails constitute an official agency record.
The IRS would not comment publicly on its document retention policies, but information provided to congressional investigators points to systemic problems with records management at the tax agency.
"Was the IRS intentionally trying to hide evidence, or was this just an e-mail slip-up? We can't get inside anybody's mind or know what somebody's intention was, and I would not presume to," said Nancy Flynn, founder of the ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, training and consulting firm. "It could be plain old e-mail mismanagement, which I'm here to tell you happens every day."
The IRS told Congress late Friday that it could not locate all of Lerner's e-mails from January 2009 to May 2011 — when Lerner was at the head of an IRS office holding up tax exemption applications for conservative groups. It blamed a May 2011 hard drive crash, and produced e-mails from IRS technicians verifying the incident.
But other IRS policies also contributed to the destruction of the e-mails. Although the entire e-mail system was backed up nightly, those backup tapes were erased and rewritten every six months.
A backup is not the same as an archive, Flynn said. "Backup tapes are only to protect the organization from a natural disaster, like an earthquake," she said. For document retention, the IRS should have a central archive — something the agency says would cost $10 million.
At the time of Lerner's crash, the IRS also had an e-mail quota of 150 megabytes per mailbox — about 1,800 e-mails. Employees reaching that limit would be responsible for deciding which e-mails to delete.
IRS policy requires employees to determine for themselves whether their e-mails constitute a record under the Federal Records Act. If so, "the email must be printed and placed in the appropriate file by the employee," according to a letter to Congress from Leonard Oursler, the IRS' director of legislative affairs. It's unclear whether Lerner did so.
"'Print and save' is some people's actual policy. And a lot of times attachments aren't saved at all, even though they're supposed to be," said Melanie Sloan, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group.
She said missing e-mails have been a problem for administrations under both parties. The George W. Bush White House was found to be missing 5 million e-mails when congressional investigators investigated the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.
"Everyone is acting today like they just discovered record-keeping problems, and that Lois Lerner is the first person to ever have them," Sloan said. "I'm not excusing the IRS, but my hunch is its incompetence rather than malice, given that this is a long-standing problem."
In some cases, the IRS was able to retrieve Lerner's e-mails from the people she e-mailed with. The agency says it has recovered 24,000 such e-mails.
But it's not just Lerner's e-mails that are missing. The IRS has told the House Ways and Means Committee that six other employees who had communicated with Lerner also had hard-drive crashes. They include Nikole Flax, the chief of staff to the acting commissioner and Michelle Eldridge, an IRS spokeswoman, and four agents working on exempt organization cases.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said Tuesday that the IRS has "known for months" that it couldn't locate Lerner's e-mails and buried that information in a letter to Congress. "Even when the IRS does admit something, they are not fully honest with us," he said. "Plot lines in Hollywood are more believable than what we are getting from this White House and the IRS."
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Sandy Levin, of Michigan, criticized "gross mismanagement" at the IRS but said, "Every equipment failure is not a conspiracy."