The U.S. Internal Revenue Service spent about $50 million on 220 conferences for employees from 2010 to 2012, according to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The cost of the agency’s conferences was released today by the committee, which is holding a hearing on the subject June 6. In one case, the IRS spent $4 million for an Anaheim, California, conference in 2010, where some stayed in rooms costing $1,500 to $3,500 a night and $135,000 was paid to outside speakers, including $17,000 for a lecture on “leadership through art.”
Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican who leads the committee, said the agency didn’t negotiate on the cost of hotel rooms, instead receiving perks such as game tickets or free drinks, which he called kickbacks.
“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,” Issa said on CNN’s “State of the Union” today.
The cost of conferences is drawing fresh scrutiny to the IRS, which is already facing political pressure since revealing that it gave heightened attention to Tea Party groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. The agency is facing inquiries from six congressional committees and a criminal probe by the Justice Department concerning its review of potential tax-exempt groups.
The General Services Administration was the subject of similar scrutiny last year for money it paid for employee conferences, including $823,000 on a Las Vegas event featuring a clown, a mind reader and a $75,000 bicycle building exercise.
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration is expected to issue a report June 4 about IRS spending on events.
The inspector general’s report pays particular attention to the Anaheim conference, according to the Washington Post, which cited unidentified congressional aides.
That gathering, for workers overseeing small businesses and self-employed taxpayers, featured an IRS-produced video parody of Star Trek. Agency employees also participated in a “dance party” video that mentioned plans for the conference.
Daniel Werfel, the acting IRS commissioner, said in a statement last week that the event was “an unfortunate vestige from a prior era” and the agency has since cut training and travel expenses.
“Taxpayers should take comfort that a conference like this would not take place today,” Werfel said in a statement yesterday. “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.”
Some details of the Anaheim event were already known. The Star Trek video became public earlier this year, as did a parody of the 1960s television show “Gilligan’s Island.” The dance party video, which shows employees being instructed in line dancing ahead of the conference, was released by the House Ways and Means Committee on May 31.
The IRS said in a statement that the video was “unacceptable and an inappropriate use of government funds.” The agency said it and the entire government have “strict new policies” to ensure taxpayer funds are used properly.
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, was also critical of what has been revealed about the agency’s spending on conferences and videos as the federal government is under pressure to cut spending.
“The acting director of the IRS said he would put an end to it,” Schumer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “It’s outrageous. Any kind of wasteful spending like this must be put down, particularly at these times.”
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