CNN’s Blitzer Presses IRS Chief: ‘Why Shouldn't Taxpayers Use the Crashed Hard Drive Excuse?’

During Thursday’s edition of The Situation Room on CNN, host Wolf Blitzer committed an act of journalism in grilling IRS Commissioner John Koskinen with question after question about the growing IRS e-mail scandal. His questioning included one where he asked (via a Twitter follower), “[w]hy shouldn’t taxpayers use the crashed hard drive excuse when undergoing an IRS audit?”

The interview, which lasted 13 minutes and 47 seconds, is more time than ABC and NBC spent on the IRS e-mail scandal combined on both their morning and evening news programs since the outrage surrounding lost emails of IRS employees, including former employee Lois Lerner, broke on June 13. [MP3 audio here; Video below]

Blitzer also pressed him with questions as to why hasn’t there been an special investigator brought into examine the scandal, why hasn’t someone been held accountable for the awful email record keeping system, and whether he believes there should be a criminal investigation of the matter as well “because this looks fishy, as you know. The appearance is awful for the IRS right now.”

Further, he asked Koskinen why U.S. law forces private companies (with the threat of criminal prosecution) to retain email records for five years while the IRS can’t seem to retain emails for that long as they instead recycle “their hard drives every six months or so.”

In response, Koskinen said that, currently, the emails of IRS employees are classified as official records and therefore are not preserved as such.

On the political front, Blitzer confronted Koskinen about his donations to Democratic candidates over his lifetime and whether he believes that Democrats would be outraged (as opposed to their disinterested state now) if this scandal would be happening with a Republican president. 

BLITZER: Now you're a Democrat. You've given money to Democratic causes. Democratic candidates, including the President of the United States, and so the suggestion is you're not going to be objective in this kind of investigation. Reassure the American people that you're not going to let your partisanship interfere with this investigation.

KOSKINEN: I've never been a partisan operative or a political operative. I was actually asked by the Bush administration to come in and work on Freddie Mac.

BLITZER: But you did contribute to the Obama campaign.

KOSKINEN: I've contributed to campaigns for the last 40 or 50 years. Many of them friends. I, at this point in my career, it's not my intention at all to play games with the Congress. My goal is to help restore people's faith in a critical institution for the country, the IRS. As I said, people need to feel comfortable that it's not a politicized agency, that it treats people fairly, no matter who they are.

BLITZER: Because a lot of Democrats -- you think this is just a partisan witch hunt -- but imagine if this were a Republican administration that had the IRS allegedly go after liberal organizations to question their tax-exempt status applications, Democratic-oriented organizations, and all of a sudden, the person who was in charge of that division decides to plead the 5th and all of a sudden a lot of emails are then suddenly missing. If this were a Republican administration, wouldn't the Democrats be understandably outraged?

KOSKINEN: Whether they'd be outraged or not, I don't know...


Relevant portions of the interview are transcribed below.

BLITZER: But the U.S. archivist who testified before the Hill, you saw him probably, testify, he said the IRS, in his words, "did not follow the law in preserving documents as required by the statute for public and official records." So someone broke the law.

KOSKINEN: The IRS has run an antiquated response to the Records Act, which everyone treats seriously and that's because of the email system. Official records in communications are printed out in hard copies. All of the information about taxpayers and their files are saved separately.

(....)

BLITZER: But there's suspicion -- the appearance looks really ugly. And don't you think there should be a much more serious investigation, an outside special prosecutor, for example? FBI should come in and take a close look, especially given the appearance of wrongdoing?

KOSKINEN: Well, the Congress has asked the inspector general, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration to do an investigation. He's working very hard at it. We've given him access to all the people, all the emails. He's trying to get at least an interim report out in the next few weeks. I think the appropriate way to proceed is let's see what the I.G. finds out. We've provided all the information we have about it, including the fact that they tried to retain our emails. We provided everybody the -- whereby the end of next week, all of the 24,000 emails we've found, together with the 43,000 thereafter -- and I think we need to pull all of this together, see what we know and then proceed.

(....)

BLITZER: The -- here's what a lot of people have pointed out to us. Sarbanes-Oxley -- you're familiar with that law -- private companies, they have to retain email data for five years. You're familiar with that, right?

KOSKINEN: I'm familiar with Sarbanes. I didn't know that particular...

BLITZER: It's a criminal penalty if they don't. So why wouldn't -- if public companies have to do that, why wouldn't the IRS have to retain important emails for at least five years, as opposed to six months, because they've been recycling their email, their hard drives every six months or so. That sounds suspicious.

KOSKINEN: I -- the IRS process, though, is every important official record gets -- is supposed to be printed out. We have 2,000 employees trained to make sure that happens. So the official records of the IRS are printed out and are saved in hard copy and now preserved. The emails, all emails are not official records. So at this point, the policy for the IRS is to in fact print them out. But that's an antiquated program and we're looking at trying to modernize it.

BLITZER: I got a ton of questions. I told my Twitter followers I was going to be interviewing you today, and I asked for some suggested questions. I got a variation of this one by a lot of folks. This one from T.G. Parker: "Why shouldn't taxpayers use the crashed hard drive excuse when undergoing an IRS audit?"

KOSKINEN: A number of them already have done that, and the question has been is there a dual standard? And as I've said, the IRS has 24,000 Lois Lerner emails from this period. We, historically, if a taxpayer has lost electronic records, have said if you have other indications and evidence of what went on, we'll take that from you. It's if you lose a document it doesn't mean you lose the argument. We actually work with taxpayers to say we'll look at other evidence, like the 24,000 emails. And if we can find any evidence to support your case -- and, in fact, if the circumstances support your case, we'll support you and you won't have any problems.

BLITZER: Now you're a Democrat. You've given money to Democratic causes. Democratic candidates, including the President of the United States. And so the suggestion is you're not going to be objective in this kind of investigation. Reassure the American people that you're not going to let your partisanship interfere with this investigation.

KOSKINEN: I've never been a partisan operative or a political operative. I was actually asked by the Bush administration to come in and work on Freddie Mac.

BLITZER: But you did contribute to the Obama campaign.

KOSKINEN: I've contributed to campaigns for the last 40 or 50 years. Many of them friends. I, at this point in my career, it's not my intention at all to play games with the Congress. My goal is to help restore people's faith in a critical institution for the country, the IRS. As I said, people need to feel comfortable that it's not a politicized agency, that it treats people fairly, no matter who they are.

BLITZER: Because a lot of Democrats -- you think this is just a partisan witch hunt -- but imagine if this were a Republican administration that had the IRS allegedly go after liberal organizations to question their tax-exempt status applications, Democratic-oriented organizations, and all of a sudden, the person who was in charge of that division decides to plead the 5th and all of a sudden a lot of emails are then suddenly missing. If this were a Republican administration, wouldn't the Democrats be understandably outraged?

KOSKINEN: Whether they'd be outraged or not, I don't know. But this investigation started out on the Hill. As you said, a political review of did the White House, did the Treasury Department, did the administration drive this? Last week, the White House noted it had no emails from Ms. Lerner; Treasury turned over all of its Lois Lerner emails. Nobody has turned up an email yet that says anybody outside of the IRS was involved.

Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck is a news analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division