I rarely agree with (Wisconsin GOP Congressman) Paul Ryan, but in this recent kerfuffle over “lost” IRS emails, he struck a responsive chord. Speaking to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen at a House Oversight Committee hearing, Ryan said “you can reach into the lives of hardworking American taxpayers and, with a letter, an phone call or email, turn their lives upside down.” The IRS, Ryan continued, asks taxpayers to keep their personal financial records for seven years and yet the IRS has managed to “lose” six months of employee emails pertaining to charges the agency had targeted conservative non-profits to question whether they were political and thus not entitled to non-profit tax status.
I can’t say for sure that the loss of the 2011 emails wasn’t the result of an ill-timed computer crash, but the assertion does strain credulity. And Koskinen flat out refused to apologize. He noted that he had testified in March that he would produce all the Lerner emails subpoenaed by the committee, and he said he had warned congressional investigators last fall that the agency had experienced computer melt-downs. He hadn’t told the panel until this week that the subpoenaed Lois Lerner emails were not recoverable. Plus, back-up versions are recycled every six months and presumably destroyed. It all smells fishy.
Koskinen’s response to the committee could just be the newest “my dog ate my homework” excuse. But his arrogance and self-righteousness bespeak an ignorance of or flouting of basic “crisis response 101” rules. He should take a note from the beleaguered head of General Motors Mary Barra, recently promoted to CEO of that traditionally male bastion of corporate power.
Barra notably retained her cool in lengthy hearings on GM’s faulty ignition switches, even when she irritated the Congressional panel by refusing to give certain detailed answers pending results of an internal report. When it did become available, she didn’t mince words saying her company “failed to handle a complex safety issue in a responsible way. ” She then laid out steps taken (employees fired, internal procedures restructured); ongoing remediation (comprehensive, exhaustive review) and forward commitments (to set a new norm, create a new industry standard). Unlike Koskinen, Barra said she is “not afraid of the truth” and not going to accept the internal report’s findings as “business as usual.”
Koskinen, by contrast, told the House panel that he had had a long career and had never been told he was not believed. Does his long career mean he should automatically be believed right now? No one, no matter how many years of service in government or private sector, should get a pass on a serious problem just because of longevity.
Former IRS Commissioner Lois Lerner has admitted that some applications for tax-exempt status were targeted based on their beliefs. But was the IRS targeting solely right-wing groups, or was it also scrutinizing non-profits on the left? The agency offered a plausible explanation last year, but now I don’t know. An ounce of humility and a touch of candor by the IRS Commissioner would have done much to reassure the public that we’d eventually get to the bottom of the charges, despite Washington partisanship.
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