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A history of the federal government’s ‘lost’ e-mails

A watchdog group this week called on Congress to investigate federal record-keeping practices to determine why the government has repeatedly lost e-mails that could shed light on alleged wrongdoing.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) made the request on Tuesday in letters to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

The move followed news that the Internal Revenue Service is missing years worth of e-mails to and from Lois Lerner, a central figure in the agency’s tea party controversy.


Former IRS official Lois Lerner. (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke).

“The truth is that the disappearance of agency records is not unusual,” CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. “Government-wide, records are routinely lost or simply not preserved.”

Below is a summary of the missing-email cases that CREW highlighted in its letters on Tuesday. The group has long criticized the government over this issue, including in a 2008 report that said the government was severely mismanaging its electronic records.

IRS tea party controversy

The problem surfaced most recently last week, when the IRS announced Lerner’s missing emails. The agency said the records disappeared when her computer crashed during the summer of 2011.

MORE: Here’s how the IRS lost emails from key witness Lois Lerner

On Tuesday, lawmakers said the IRS had lost other e-mails from key officials tied to the tea party issue, which involved targeting of advocacy groups for extra scrutiny based on the names and policy positions.

“Sadly, the recent events at the IRS are not an anomaly,” Sloan said.

CREW has called on Congress to amend the Federal Records Act with more-vigorous enforcement mechanisms and stricter penalties for non-compliance. The group has also recommended a government-wide policy of backing up records.

The “torture memos”

The Justice Department said in 2010 that it was missing e-mails from John Yoo and Patrick Philbin, two George W. Bush administration officials who helped craft legal arguments to justify the questionable techniques that were used to elicit information from captured enemy combatants after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility at the time was investigating Yoo and Philbin for signs of professional misconduct in relation to the so-called “torture memos.”

Madoff investigation

The Securities and Exchange Commission said in 2011 that it had likely destroyed documents from probes of convicted Ponzi-scheme fraudster Bernard Madoff and several major banks.


Bernard Madoff, center, walks out from Federal Court after a bail hearing in 2009. (Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images).

The SEC said it was required to toss the records under a former agency policy that required the elimination of documents created or obtained during preliminary investigations.

Dismissal of U.S. attorneys

The  George W. Bush administration in 2007 was missing 5 million e-mails when congressional investigators reviewed the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys to determine whether the removals were politically motivated.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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