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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Unbridled Power - The IRS and record keeping

The latest news regarding the IRS and emails reminded me of a book I read over 15 years ago titled "Unbridled Power: inside the secret culture of the IRS" by Shelley Davis. Ms. Davis was the first and likely last official historian of the IRS. She had a long career as a government historian, working for the Air Force and Defense Department Mapping agency before her employment at the IRS.

Throughout the federal government, there a professionals whose job is to manage documents in their agencies, reviewing them and forwarding relevant ones to the National Archives. This is what Mrs. Davis did in her previous roles in the Department of  Defense. When she arrived at the IRS she discovered that the IRS basically had no clear record retention policy and were engaged in a struggle with the National Archives to resist archiving IRS records. She testified to this effect to before the Senate finance Committee Oversight Hearing on Internal Revenue Service, Tuesday, September 23, 1997 (Shelley Davis Senate Testimony).
From her testimony:
My introduction to the culture of the IRS came during my earliest days with the tax agency, in the fall of 1988. Although I had been hired as the first historian for the IRS, I found little interest or support for my efforts. I found even less history. By history I mean both an awareness of the heritage of the IRS as well as the raw material (the documentation) from which narrative history is distilled. Neither the documents nor the heritage were to be found. Initially, I found this curious. Later, I found it alarming. At the IRS National Headquarters, there seemed little connection between the work of employees and actual tax collection what I presumed to be the mission of the IRS. Rather than possessing any basic curiosity about the past, the IRS employees I encountered exhibited a wariness, a suspicion assuming that anyone looking for records must have some definite agenda. An agenda presumed to be negative.
This reluctance to think about the past translated into routine day-to-day operations, meaning that all documents were tossed, shredded, whatever, when a program was completed or shut down, as in the case of many IRS computer projects. No records. No paper trail. No history.......
......A corollary to this defensive shield is the penchant of the IRS to destroy its paper trail. There were virtually no records of IRS actions throughout the twentieth century in any of the repositories where one would normally find federal records: the IRS itself, the National Archives (including the permanent archives in Washington, D.C., the 10 records centers around the country, or the Presidential libraries.)
In my early years with the IRS, a good question to ask was, "Where are the records?" What I learned was shocking. The records had been destroyed. Gone. Shredded. Tossed. They no longer exist due to a lack of attention to, or concern for, the law which requires all federal agencies to preserve records of what they do. It is as though the IRS assumed that laws which apply to the FBI, to the CIA, to every other part of the federal establishment can be ignored. No other agency of our government could get away with this. I questioned the reason why it had taken so long for anyone to realize that the records were not just missing, but destroyed. I believe the answer is based on fear. As taxpayers, why would we ever question the one agency that can truly bite back? 
Does this sound familiar? While at first I simply could not believe that the IRS could believe they could get away with such flagrant abuse of the law, I now realize that why shouldn't they believe so. They have been doing this for years. Shred paper documents or shred hard drives. What is the difference?

This has been going on for years. 1997 GAO report

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