IRS Should Improve FOIA Document Retrieval, Watchdog Finds
Four years after charges of political bias rocked the Internal Revenue Service, the watchdog who played a key role in the controversy has faulted the procedures by which the tax agency retrieves internal documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration in a report released on Monday concluded that “IRS policies do not comply with certain federal requirements that agencies must ensure that all records are retrievable and usable for as long as needed.”
The findings were welcomed by conservative legal groups that have gone to court to pry loose IRS documents related to the allegations that agency officials intentionally lost or destroyed key emails related to the handling of nonprofits’ applications for tax-exempt status.
The agency—whose top leadership was forced out by the controversy—in May 2013 began reforming its procedures for scouring laptops, desktops, computer hard drives and backup tapes to comply with requests from FOIA users and lawmakers. Congressional committees had held a series of anger-filled hearings in which IRS was accused of covering up politicization. Past TIGTA reports, however, did not find that document destruction or loss to be deliberate.
Still, some Republicans continue to press for Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen to be impeached or fired.
The new report, requested separately by the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, found that “these repeated changes have had a negative impact on the IRS’ ability to meet the record retention requirements and deadlines.” The agency’s current practice of storing hard drives and laptops in multiple locations, the IG said, “is not a sustainable electronic recordkeeping solution to meet the record retention expectations required by the [Code of Federal Regulations], specifically, preserving records to ensure that all records are retrievable and usable for as long as needed to conduct agency business.”
The policies, TIGTA found, do not ensure that all records are retained. The watchdog also found “weaknesses in the IRS policy associated with searching for responsive records associated with separated employees.”
Employee emails, for example, are not automatically archived. “Instead, the IRS’s current policy instructs employees to take manual actions to archive emails by saving them permanently on computer hard drives or network shared drives. This policy has resulted in lost records when computer hard drives are destroyed or damaged.” In addition, a recent executive email retention policy was not effective “because some executives did not turn on the automatic archiving feature,” said the auditors. They reviewed 30 FOIA requests and found that half were not fully answered according to the policy.
TIGTA recommended five changes to better enforce FOIA compliance procedures and more widely disseminate guidance on retaining emails from departed employees. The agency managers agreed, notion that a new enterprise email system is currently being implemented and that it has disseminated guidance on retaining documents from former employees.
Asked for comment, Lee Steven, assistant vice president of the Cause of Action Institute, which has sued the IRS, said, “To ensure accountability and build public trust, the IRS should have a strong records management system in place. Instead, as this TIGTA reports shows, the agency has created policies and procedures that make records searches tedious and ineffective. We applaud TIGTA for shining a light on this problem and for recommending reforms that, if carried through by IRS, will help the agency maintain records and respond to requests in accordance with the law.”
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which has ongoing litigation against the tax agency, told Government Executive the report “confirms our suspicions and our complaints on the IRS to the courts about their handling of our FOIA requests and their email retention policies. It’s disturbing, and shows they allowed records to go missing but didn’t tell anyone about it, not the courts, or Congress or the people,” he added. For Fitton, the report “again raises the big question of why Koskinen is still the IRS commissioner.”