House panel: Report finds $50M for IRS conferences

By Alan Fram

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 2 2013 3:52 p.m. MDT

FILE – In this Nov. 9, 2011, file photo then-Controller Danny Werfel of OMB Office of Federal Financial Management watches as President Barack Obama (not shown) signs an Executive Order to cut waste and promote efficient spending across the federal government in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Friday May 31st, 2013, Werfel, the new acting Commissioner of the IRS, issued a statement commenting on a report by Treasury Department's Inspector General in which he criticized a $4 million IRS conference in August 2010 in Anaheim, Calif. The report will be released Tuesday.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — A government watchdog has found that the Internal Revenue Service spent about $50 million to hold at least 220 conferences for employees between 2010 and 2012, a House committee said Sunday.

The chairman of that committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also released excerpts of congressional investigators' interviews with employees of the IRS office in Cincinnati. Issa said the interviews indicated they were directed by Washington to subject tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to tough scrutiny.

The excerpts provided no direct evidence that Washington had ordered that screening. The top Democrat on that panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said none of the employees interviewed have so far identified any IRS officials in Washington as ordering that targeting.

The conference spending included $4 million for an August 2010 gathering in Anaheim, Calif., for which the agency did not negotiate lower room rates, even though that is standard government practice, according to a statement by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Instead, some of the 2,600 attendees received benefits, including baseball tickets and stays in presidential suites that normally cost $1,500 to $3,500 per night. In addition, 15 outside speakers were paid a total of $135,000 in fees, with one paid $17,000 to talk about "leadership through art," the House committee said.

The report by the Treasury Department's inspector general, set to be released Tuesday, comes as the IRS already is facing bipartisan criticism after agency officials disclosed they had targeted tea party and other conservative groups.

Agency officials and the Obama administration have said that treatment was inappropriate. But the political tempest is showing no signs of ebbing and has put the White House on the defensive. Three congressional committees are investigating, a Justice Department criminal investigation is under way, President Barack Obama has replaced the IRS' acting commissioner and two other top officials have stepped aside.

The Treasury Department released a statement Sunday saying the administration "has already taken aggressive and dramatic action to reduce conference spending."

IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said Sunday that spending on large agency conferences with 50 or more participants fell from $37.6 million in the 2010 budget year to $4.9 million in 2012. The government's fiscal year begins Oct. 1 the previous calendar year.

On Friday, the new acting commissioner, Danny Werfel, released a statement on the forthcoming report criticizing the Anaheim meeting.

"This conference is an unfortunate vestige from a prior era," Werfel said. "While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have occurred."

Werfel, a former official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said reducing excessive personal travel has been "a personal priority for me" and said "taxpayers should take comfort that a conference like this would not take place today."

Appearing Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union," Issa expressed skepticism.

"Understand that some of the things that they're saying, 'Well, this wouldn't happen again,' they would still happen again," Issa said.

Issa's committee also released excerpts from interviews congressional investigators conducted last week with two IRS employees from the agency's Cincinnati office. The excerpts made available offered no direct evidence that the targeting of conservative groups was directed from Washington, and did not name any individuals or agencies involved.

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