Beltway Confidential

More scandals with lost emails are ahead if Congress doesn't enforce the record-keeping laws on the books

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Melanie Sloan and Anne Weismann -- executive director and chief counsel, respectively, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- made two important points in yesterday's edition of the Washington Post.

First, the IRS is far from the only federal agency with a major problem preserving employee emails in which official business is discussed.

That is a problem throughout the federal government because, as Sloan and Weisman explained, "from a record-keeping perspective, federal agencies have no idea how to manage their e-mail.

"Agency employees do not understand that many of their e-mail messages qualify as records that must be preserved for archival purposes, a requirement imposed by the Federal Records Act."

And it's a problem that will continue and grow more serious because "agencies are unwilling to invest in the electronic record-keeping infrastructure that would ensure e-mail is properly managed and preserved," according to Sloan and Weisman.

Their second and even more significant point is that the failure to preserve important emails is a problem that predates the Obama administration.

"Our organization has brought lawsuits over the years challenging the Bush White House's destruction of millions of e-mail messages, as well as the destruction of pre-investigative files by the Securities and Exchange Commission, including files pertaining to Bernie Madoff and Goldman Sachs," Sloan and Weisman wrote.

Other scandals during the previous administration also hinged at least in part on emails that could not be recovered, including the firing of nine U.S. attorneys.

But despite being apprised of the problem on multiple occasions over the past decade by numerous experts, advocates and officials, Congress has consistently looked the other way.

Sloan and Weisman come from the Democratic side of Washington public life, but that ought not obscure the importance of their points.

Sloppy or nonexistent record-keeping encourages wrong-doing in government because it enables coverups. But that's not all.

It also creates a corrosive, lingering suspicion of government by making it more difficult -- and sometimes impossible -- to resolve scandals like the IRS targeting of Tea Party and conservative groups.

A big majority of Americans believe the IRS scandal is serious and its investigation by Congress should continue until the full truth is known.

Given the particular circumstances of the lost IRS emails, it's all but impossible not to think they were destroyed intentionally.

Intentional destruction would be impossible, however, if record-keeping systems with fail-safe backups were routine practice in all federal agencies.

But if Congress doesn't take action soon to force executive branch agencies to take seriously their record-keeping obligations under the law, the IRS mess will be followed by many more.

One might think that actions necessary for avoiding future IRS scandals would be something on which Democrats and Republicans could instantly agree.

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