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IRS Officials Get to Choose When They Save Internal Messaging Records

Following the disappearance of the tax agency’s e-mail records during the 2013 targeting scandal, it appears the IRS still can withhold information from the public.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials explained at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Tuesday that employees of the tax agency were able to choose when they saved internal instant messaging communications for public archives.

“[Instant messaging] is not supposed to be used for a formalized record. If it is, then that has to be copied into the system and stored,” Deputy IRS Commissioner Jeffrey Tribiano said to the committee.

Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) pointed out that this policy was problematic. “But if it is used, someone has to make that decision to save it?” he asked.

Edward Killen, the IRS Director of Privacy and Government Liaison, responded in the affirmative.

“If a record is created, the employee does have the affirmative obligation to save that record,” Killen said.

“Wouldn’t it be more elegant just to do a constant capture model?” Schweikert asked, hoping that all records of messages would be preserved. “You’re basically asking an employee to say, ‘This is appropriate for retention. This isn’t.’ I see a human factor that creates a level of fragility.”

Killen said that the instant messaging applications were “not authoritative” and “transitory” so they did not require automatic record-keeping.

A congressional investigation in 2013 revealed that the IRS had illegally targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny regarding their tax exempt status.

During the course of the investigation, it was revealed that all of IRS Commissioner Lois Lerner’s e-mails from the relevant period went missing in a mysterious “computer crash.” Lerner ended up pleading the Fifth and was held in contempt of Congress for her lack of transparency.