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IRS employees have control of emails; agency's document retention practices questioned

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By USA Today
Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 9:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It wasn't just a hard drive crash that led the Internal Revenue Service to lose Lois Lerner's emails 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 emails 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 email 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 email 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 emails 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 emails from IRS technicians verifying the incident.

But other IRS policies also contributed to the destruction of the emails. Although the entire email 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 email quota of 150 megabytes per mailbox — about 1,800 emails. Employees reaching that limit would be responsible for deciding which emails to delete.

IRS policy requires employees to determine for themselves whether their emails 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.

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