Congress blasts spending on IRS conferences, spoof videos

06/06/2013 12:06 PM

06/17/2013 3:16 PM

A top official of the Internal Revenue Service – who played “Star Trek’s” Mr. Spock in an agency-funded spoof of the popular TV show – apologized Thursday for not being more careful with taxpayers’ money as beleaguered IRS officials endured a fresh grilling from a congressional committee.

“I think now that we should have been paying closer watch to our expenditures and the expenses,” a contrite Faris Fink, the commissioner of the agency’s Small Business and Self-Employed Division, said of the video, which was produced for an agency conference in Anaheim, Calif.

“I don’t think the conference itself was wrong because of the time that we were in at the Internal Revenue Service. Thirty percent of our managers in small business were brand new.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was incredulous. “Did you ever sit there and say to yourself, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t right and if somebody sees this, the taxpayers are not going to like this’?” he asked.

“Absolutely, sir,” Fink replied.

The hearing was the latest in a series that began last month after disclosures that the IRS was targeting conservative groups. Over the past week, new reports have indicated that the IRS spent $49 million on conferences from fiscal 2010 to 2012, roughly the same period involved in the targeting. While the two controversies have no apparent link, they’ve been tied together politically to cast the IRS as an out-of-control agency.

Lawmakers from both major political parties spent Thursday railing against various IRS practices as new acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel tried to offer solace. “I understand the enormity of the moment and the enormity of the challenge,” he said. Werfel placed two IRS employees on administrative leave Wednesday for taking free food and gifts, a violation of government ethics rules.

At one point Thursday, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Werfel hard on whether liberal groups also had been subjected to intense IRS scrutiny. McClatchy found this week that no liberal or nonpartisan group has come forward to charge that it was unfairly targeted. Werfel, who continues to review IRS practices, wouldn’t speculate.

Werfel, as well as Fink, set a calmer tone at this hearing than at those of the past, which featured people who were top officials during the targeting era. Cummings praised Fink for his willingness to express regret, while Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman, had kind words for Werfel. “Your two predecessors,” Issa said, “Not so good.”

The lawmakers’ outrage Thursday was directed at the conference spending, particularly the Anaheim meeting of the Small Business and Self-Employed Division.

Treasury Inspector General Russell George detailed how the conference appeared to cost about $4.1 million. “We could not validate the accuracy,” he added. “IRS did not have effective controls to track and report those costs.”

“To find out that not only does the IRS take your money, not give you proper answers and then, when it comes to tens of millions of dollars, use it in a way that is at best maliciously self-indulgent . . . is unthinkable for any agency,” Issa said. “But when it’s the IRS and they give to their own employees benefits, such as local employees in Anaheim, and then fail to file W-2s for that income, the IRS effectively was guilty of tax evasion.”

“The money that was spent on that, that’s my money,” Cummings added. “The lady who got the early bus this morning, that’s her money.”

George’s report detailed that 15 speakers were featured at a total cost of $135,350. One keynote speaker’s fee included his creation of six paintings at two keynote sessions, including portraits of Albert Einstein, Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, Bono and the Statue of Liberty. George told the committee the spending on the paintings wasn’t appropriate. The “Star Trek” video, which lasted five minutes and 40 seconds, featured IRS employees in “Star Trek” costumes on the set of a fake Starship Enterprise. The inspector general estimated that it took 62 hours of employee time to produce the video. George’s report found that the IRS “was unable to provide any details supporting this cost.”

Cummings said he’d watched it several times and could find “no redeeming value” in it.

A two minute 52 second line-dancing video featuring IRS employees was designed “to help facilitate a connection between executives and managers,” the report found.

It also said that of the 2,380 rooms that three hotels agreed to reserve, upgrades were provided for 132 suites.

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