E-mail

The IRS's E-Mail System Looks Crazy, and Not Only to Republicans


The IRS's E-Mail System Looks Crazy, and Not Only to Republicans

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The mystery of the lost IRS e-mails is getting deeper. The agency has been unable to locate e-mails from seven employees, including Lois Lerner, the former head of the office that determines tax exemption status and the woman at the center of inquiries into whether the Internal Revenue Service targeted Tea Party and other political groups.

The IRS says it is unable to recover about two years of Lerner’s e-mails, from 2009 to mid-2011, when her computer suffered a hard-drive malfunction. Agency technicians were unable to recover the e-mail data stored on that computer, the agency told Congressional investigators in a letter Friday. Another IRS worker whose e-mails have allegedly vanished because of a computer malfunction is Nikole Flax, who served as chief of staff to Steven Miller, the agency’s former acting commissioner. Miller resigned 13 months ago amid the investigation.

The reasons for this e-mail imbroglio stem from what appear to be some peculiar e-mail practices, in an age when data storage costs have dropped. The IRS has Microsoft’s (MSFT) Outlook for its 90,000 workers and gives them 500 megabytes of space for mail, or about 6,000 per inbox, up from 150 MB before the summer of 2011. If you reach the limit, the system generates an alert that space needs to be freed up for continued e-mail use. Plenty of U.S. companies have a similar practice.

Here’s where it seems to get murky: When an IRS employee’s e-mail account is full, he or she needs to decide what is an official work record and must be archived, in compliance with the Federal Records Act and other pertinent regulations. The archive is maintained on the employee’s computer—not on a corporate server—and is not part of the daily systemwide mail backup, which covers about 170 terabytes of e-mail data the IRS stores at three data centers. Before May 2013, those backups were stored for only six months; the data are now retained, which costs $200,000 per year, the IRS said. “An electronic version of the archived e-mail would not be retained if an employee’s hard drive is recycled or if the hard drive crashes and cannot be recovered,” the agency said in a June 13 letter to the Senate Finance Committee.

Fishy? Congressional Republicans certainly think so. “Plot lines in Hollywood are more believable than what we are getting from this White House and the IRS,” Representatives Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said in a statement Tuesday. Perhaps even odder than that system, the IRS requires e-mail that qualifies as an official record to be printed and filed. Oh, and if the e-mail system doesn’t include the official send/receive data on the e-mail, write that on the paper copy.

The agency said it has also spent nearly $10 million having more than 250 employees respond to “hundreds of Congressional requests for information.” In all, the IRS said it will have 67,000 e-mails for Congress to peruse, part of 750,000 documents related to the inquiries.

When e-mails go missing, it’s easy to conjure nefarious political conspiracies. Democrats did the same in 2007 when the George W. Bush White House said it lost or erased millions of e-mails related to the administration’s dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys, which Congress was investigating. The Clinton Administration had a similar issue with missing e-mail in 2000, leading NPR to quip that the Washington e-mail problem appears to recur every seven years.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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