In Oscar Wilde's comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Lady Bracknell is indignant to hear that Jack Worthing is an orphan. "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
If only one could enjoy a similar belly laugh over President Obama's IRS repeatedly losing hard drives loaded with data related to scandals at the agency. To lose one might be regarded as suspicious happenstance; to lose two looks like conspiracy.
The most famous case is that of Lois Lerner, whose division became notorious for targeting conservative groups applying for nonprofit status. Her computer hard drive malfunctioned before that scandal broke, around the same time Congress was looking for information on a separate IRS targeting scheme aimed at conservative donors.
One of Lerner's emails to colleagues, which was finally retrieved from data tapes after roughly two years of congressional demands, stated, "No one will ever believe that both your hard drive and mine crashed within a week of each other."
The newest case of IRS hard drive trouble happened last April, but came to light only this month. Law 360, a subscription-based trade publication, reported this week that the IRS has notified the Justice Department that it erased a hard drive after being ordered not to do so by a federal judge.
In this case, the missing communications are those of a former IRS official named Samuel Maruca in the Large Business and International division. He is believed to have been among the senior IRS employees who made the unusual and possibly illegal decision in May 2014 to hire the outside law firm Quinn Emanuel to help conduct an audit of Microsoft Corporation.
As the House Ways and Means Committee noted last spring, the hiring of the firm was probably a violation of the statute protecting confidential taxpayer information.
"Hiring Quinn Emanuel may violate Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code," the committee report states, "which prohibits the sharing of confidential taxpayer return information. When the IRS hired Quinn Emanuel, it issued a temporary regulation to allow the law firm to see taxpayer return information and to take compelled testimony — in other words, interrogate Microsoft employees."
Another reason Congress is upset about this law firm's $2.2 million contract is that it came at the expense of IRS customer service. Ever since the Lerner scandal, IRS leadership has moaned incessantly about cuts to their budget. In an effort to gain public sympathy, they made a big deal of the fact that the cuts would diminish the agency's capacity to provide taxpayer assistance during spring 2015.
But at the same time, the IRS was using funds to pay executive bonuses and to hire this outside law firm, even though the agency has many qualified tax attorneys and auditors on staff capable of investigating Microsoft.
The heart of this matter has nothing to do with taxes or targeting, though. It's about Obama's overall commitment to transparency, or rather, to opacity. The IRS is one of several agencies, including also the EPA and State Department (where the top official secretly concealed work communications from public scrutiny and her own agency for five years), to suffer from the same problem. All over the federal bureaucracy, taxpayer-owned communications go missing whenever they seem likely to inculpate senior officials.
Government transparency is not a luxury or a concession of the bureaucracy; it is the law. Bureaucrats work for the public and owe it a complete account of their work. The next president must reinforce this point with tough new sanctions for violators, lest the IRS be forced to spend most of its future budget on new hard drives. One candidate for president has, of course, already shown she is not up to the task.