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Never having to say you're sorry

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Lost IRS emails stretches the credibility of the agency

Being the IRS, apparently, means never having to say that you’re sorry.

That’s the word after congressional Republicans bore down on the Internal Revenue Service and the convenient loss of some emails that many believe will be incriminating in the targeting of conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status.

“I don’t think an apology is owed,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told U.S. Rep. Dave Camp in what Reuters described as a tense exchange with the Republican Friday at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing about the lost emails. Koskiner, who was confirmed to the job in December, also told the committee he would not support an effort by GOP lawmakers to get a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the issue.

Well, that was no surprise. Nor was it a surprise that Democrats, facing the task of trying to hold onto control of the Senate and not lose more ground in the House, have been downplaying any involvement the White House might have had in targeting Tea Party and other conservative affiliated groups leading up to the 2012 elections. The argument is that it is unfair to connect the dots because GOP lawmakers have no evidence that there are dots.

It may be that we’ll never know whether that evidence ever existed. The emails of former IRS official Lois Lerner — who did publicly apologize in May 2013 for conservative groups being “inappropriately” under the IRS microscope before she refused to answer congressional questions and retired — have disappeared in a spectacular and, one would think, unusually efficient manner.

Some of Lerner’s emails between 2009 and 2011 that congressional investigators sought were victims of a computer crash that rendered them unrecoverable. If the situation is to believed, her computer was not backed up for that period and no trace of the emails can be located.

One has to wonder how well that argument would fly with an IRS auditor if a taxpayer were to throw out this “dog ate my homework” excuse for his or her business records couldn’t be produced at the agency’s behest.

But a good faith effort to find them was made, with Rep. Sanford Levin, a Democrat, noting that the IRS had spent $16 million trying to locate them. Koskinen was also deeply concerned about expenses, saying appointing a special prosecutor would be a waste of tax money.

The fact is, if the agencies that were under the most scrutiny been liberal minded and the administration headed by a Republican, you wouldn’t be able to get a Democratic lawmaker 15 seconds into a sound bite before the words “Watergate” and “Nixon” popped up. And the mysterious loss of data would have not been a lack of evidence. Its very nonexistence would have been proof positive of nefarious goings-on. But lest someone think a shiny knight is galloping down the streets of D.C., under those circumstances, GOP lawmakers most likely would be the ones arguing witch hunt.

When it comes to illuminating the truth, in Washington the first consideration, with a few exceptions, seems to be whether the light is being shined in the eyes of people you support or oppose.

Regardless of ideology, whether groups were targeted because of their political speech — the essence of the First Amendment — deserves to be determined. And IRS officials should, at the very least, be held to the same standards to which they would hold taxpayers. Neither has been done.

We do, however, agree with Koskinen on one point. No apology is needed. The last thing we need in Washington is to hear another lie.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board