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It reeks of Watergate. That’s the hard fact of the missing emails of former IRS official Lois Lerner, and the stink is already threatening to engulf the agency.

Perhaps that is too harsh. There is no proof – as yet, anyway – that Lerner’s emails were purposely destroyed or that they contained anything incriminating about the IRS’s interest in conservative political groups. It could all be innocent, but for anyone who remembers the Watergate hearings, missing government information and IRS abuses are blood-red flags – alarms blaring in the night.

A House committee had sought emails from Lerner, among others, in its investigation of the IRS’s apparent extra interest in the activities of tea party related groups. Some level of IRS interest in political activity by tax-exempt organizations is certainly legitimate, as long as it is broad-based and even-handed.

That doesn’t appear to have been the case and the questions are whether the focus on conservative groups was the result of poor direction in one IRS office or if was the result of a policy, and also if the IRS continued to focus on conservative groups after saying it would stop.

That is why congressional investigators wanted to review emails from the IRS. Yet, just 10 days after Rep. David Camp, R-Michigan, sent a letter to then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman about the issue, Lerner’s computer crashed – along with the computers of six additional IRS officials. Thus, two years of emails were wiped out – just as Congress was expressing an interest in them.

Some of the emails have been recovered. About 24,000 were found on computers that received the messages, along with about 43,000 retrieved from Lerner’s computer from other time periods.

It is possible that this was an accident. Writing for Bloomberg.com, Megan McCardle, who once administered an email system such as the IRS seems to be using, concludes that accidental loss is plausible, but only “if the IRS is managing its IT systems so badly that it is very easy to lose critical records – or for abusive employees to destroy the evidence of their misbehavior.”

But that’s hardly reassuring, and well worth the time to question. And it does nothing to erase the odor of 1974. The saving grace of that time was the honor of the investigators, including Democrats such as Sen. Sam Ervin and Rep. Peter Rodino and Republicans such as Sens. Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker.

Today, we have Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the congressional equivalent of the class clown. All Americans, and especially conservative Americans, have a right to answers on this issue. They deserve better than the stiff arm of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen and the buffoonery of Issa. Allegations of IRS abuse and coverup are serious. Washington should treat them that way.