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IRS faces new battle on overspending

Mgn Online
Sunday, June 2, 2013 - 1:27pm

The Internal Revenue Service is playing defense on a new front: excess spending on conferences.

The IRS spent close to $50 million on 225 conferences between 2010 and 2012, according to briefings given to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

TIGTA will release an audit Tuesday that details surplus spending at a conference in 2010 for 2,700 people in the IRS Small Business/Self-Employed division.

At a House oversight committee hearing on the issue next week, lawmakers will focus on the August 2010 conference held in Anaheim, California, at a cost of $4 million. Several IRS employees stayed in presidential suites at hotels, the committee learned. Such suites currently cost between $1,500 to $3,500 per night.

"The culture of the federal workforce is one where I don't think you can underestimate that if you don't keep reminding the voters - but also the federal workers - that we're watching, this will happen again," Rep. Darrell Issa said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Last year, the General Services Administration drew fierce congressional criticism and scrutiny for spending nearly $1 million on a conference in Las Vegas, also in 2010. It featured a controversial video and ultimately resulted in the resignation of the GSA administrator. The administration implemented efforts to clamp down on such spending.

"It doesn't stay fixed," Issa said. "One example in Anaheim, when they bought their tickets they said, 'Well, we'll pay the per diem rate for these hotel rooms.' They didn't negotiate, they didn't bid it. And this was 2,700 folks. So they could have gotten a considerable reduction. Instead what they said is, 'We'll pay full boat, but we want some perks.' So they ended up with free drinks, they ended up with tickets to games, basically kickbacks."

Fifteen outside speakers were hired to give presentations at the conference, totaling $135,000, the oversight committee was told. One of the speakers, who was paid $17,000, led a session called "Leadership Through Art."

The IRS spent $50,000 to produce two videos that were shown at the event. One had a "Star Trek" theme and was reported on earlier this year, while the other video -- in which employees learned the Cupid shuffle dance -- was released this weekend.

The purpose of the conference was listed as continuing professional education, but credits were not given to attendees, the committee learned. Also, no sign-in sheets were posted outside training sessions, making it difficult for TIGTA to determine if attendees actually went to the sessions.

The IRS has not taken disciplinary action over the conference, TIGTA told the oversight committee, adding that planners were given cash awards for their efforts.

The report comes as the IRS is already under investigation for its admitted targeting of conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status in 2010 and 2011.

Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel released a statement Friday about the upcoming audit release, saying such spending is "inappropriate."

"This conference is an unfortunate vestige from a prior era. While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have occurred," he said, adding that such a conference would not take place today.

"Sweeping new spending restrictions have been put in place at the IRS, and travel and training expenses have dropped more than 80 percent since 2010 and similar large-scale meetings did not take place in 2011, 2012 or 2013." 

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