Watchdog: IRS enjoy luxury rooms at $4.1 million training conference

By Stephen Ohlemacher

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, June 4 2013 12:13 p.m. MDT

This March 22, 2103 file photo shows the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington.

Susan Walsh, AP

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Already under siege, the Internal Revenue Service was cited by a government watchdog for a $4.1 million training conference featuring luxury rooms and free drinks, even as conservative figures told Congress Tuesday they had been abused for years while seeking tax-exempt status.

A total of 132 IRS officials received room upgrades at the 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., according to the report being released by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

One official stayed five nights in a room that regularly goes for $3,500 a night, George's report said, and another stayed four nights in a room that regularly goes for $1,499 a night. The agency paid a flat daily fee of $135 per hotel room, it said, but the upgrades were part of a package deal that added to the overall cost of the conference. Without the upgrades, the IRS could have negotiated a lower room rate, as required by agency procedures.

The inspector general's report was surfacing as the IRS came under fire again in connection with its targeting of conservative groups during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

In all, the IRS held 225 employee conferences from 2010 through 2012, at a total cost of $49 million, the report said. The Anaheim conference was the most expensive, but others were costly, too.

In 2010, for instance, the agency held a conference in Philadelphia that cost $2.9 million, one in San Diego that cost $1.2 million, and one in Atlanta that also cost $1.2 million.

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel has called the conferences "an unfortunate vestige from a prior era." Werfel took over the agency about two weeks ago, after President Barack Obama forced the previous acting commissioner to resign.

For more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, IRS agents in a Cincinnati office singled out tea party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status, according to a previous report by George.

The report issued last month said tea party groups were asked inappropriate questions about their donors, their political affiliations and their positions on political issues. The additional scrutiny delayed applications for an average of nearly two years, making it difficult for many of the groups to raise money.

On Tuesday, leaders of conservative groups complained to Congress that they were abused by the Internal Revenue Service for years as they sought tax-exempt status, including questions one Iowa anti-abortion group said it got about prayer meetings.

The testimony of the tea party and other conservative organizations before the House Ways and Means Committee was the first time groups complaining about the IRS's treatment have appeared directly before lawmakers since the IRS revealed the problem — and apologized for it — last month. They talked about applications for tax-exempt status that took three years for approval — or in some cases haven't yet been approved — and queries from the agency about the identity of their donors, video of meetings and whether speakers at such gatherings expressed political views.

"I'm a born-free American woman," Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, tearfully told the committee, adding, "I'm telling my government, you've forgotten your place."

Sue Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, an anti-abortion group, said the IRS asked them about "the content of our prayers."

"As Christians, we know we needed to pray for better solutions for unplanned pregnancies," she said.

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