Many years ago I walked into the senatorial offices of Republican John Williams of Delaware and noticed a number of big boxes stacked in the hallway. When I inquired if he was moving to other quarters, Williams, a good source and a better friend, grinned and explained that the boxes contained documents that supported his federal income tax filing for the year.
"I know they're going to audit me every year so I just pack up all my notes and other records and ship them off. It sort of drives them nuts," he chuckled.
There was no need to ask why he would do this. Everyone knew at the time that the man called the "conscience of the Senate" still had enemies in the Internal Revenue Service after taking the lead in an early 1950s congressional investigation that nearly broke up the big tax collection agency and completely altered the way it worked.
As a result of Williams' efforts 125 convictions for fraud, bribery and extortion and other misdeeds ultimately were handed out to IRS officials. President Harry Truman was forced to fire the IRS commissioner T. Lamar Caudle who also later went to jail for his part in the huge affair. Even after this, members of Congress were cautious about taking on the tax collectors for obvious reasons just as they were about too much criticism of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover. The threat of audits and leaks were as intimidating as what might be contained in Hoover's legendary secret files.
Currently, there is a major political debate over just how serious another burgeoning IRS scandal really is. Unsurprisingly the Democrats deny it amounts to much while most Republicans are sure of it. Until recently the evidence seemed to point to a rogue operation at worst run by a former IRS official, Lois Lerner, whose minions apparently held up applications by conservative groups seeking tax exempt status.
There is no denying the political aspects of the matter. Democrats charge that they also were victims but the proof of that is shallow if at all and they further contend this is a Republican witch hunt to link Lerner's operation to the White House. Both parties have mounted similar defenses historically in the face of scandal. This time it seemed to be sticking.
That is until recently when the current IRS commissioner, John Kaskinen, nonchalantly revealed that two years of emails from Lerner's operations have disappeared because of a computer crash. Outraged Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee understandably met this with skepticism.
The GOP members of the powerful tax writing committee which they all but control called Kaskinen a liar and even the casual observer would find the head tax collector's smug explanation a bit too pat to be truthful.
For those not too young to remember it reminded one of those missing 18 seconds from Rosemary Woods' recorder during the Nixon Administration's Watergate scandal.
One couldn't help but wonder whether unlike the Nixon White House which refused to burn the incriminating tapes, the IRS decided to do away with any evidence that might be interpreted as part of an effort to help the president win reelection in 2012.
The specter of the missing emails is unlikely to go away and as the current election season heats up, the accusations of wrong doing can be expected to increase. The IRS's defenders haven't been helped by Lerner's Fifth Amendment refusal to testify before the House and the perception that the agency is applying whitewash in liberal gobs.
Whether this scandal, as some believe, is the worst in the history of the agency is hard to say. It would be difficult to match the one John Williams brought to light at least from a base criminal aspect. From a constitutional one, serious evidence that the IRS had tried to manipulate the tax code in favor of the incumbent president would be a contender for that dubious honor.
It is not unbelievable that someone in the White House might foolishly have dropped a hint that this would be a good idea. Nixon clearly contemplated it and when his intentions for his infamous enemy's list were made clear to his aides, the IRS commissioner at the time refused absolutely.
Kiskinen's the dog ate the emails excuse is dubious at best.
(Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.)