June 5, 2013 in Nation/World

IRS bosses’ luxury rooms compound agency flare-up

Meetings cost far more than current cap
Stephen Ohlemacher And Alan Fram Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Right to left: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.; Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas; Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas; Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., listen Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Already heavily criticized for targeting conservative groups, the Internal Revenue Service absorbed another blow Tuesday as new details emerged about senior officials enjoying luxury hotel rooms, free drinks and free food at a $4.1 million training conference. It was one of many expensive gatherings the agency held for employees over a three-year period.

One top official stayed five nights in a room that regularly goes for $3,500 a night. Another official, Faris Fink, stayed four nights in a room that regularly goes for $1,499.

Fink was later promoted to head the IRS division that staged the 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., a position he still holds. He also has the distinction of playing Mr. Spock in a cheesy but slickly produced “Star Trek” video that IRS employees filmed for the conference.

A total of 132 IRS officials received room upgrades at the conference, according to a report by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration. The tax agency paid a flat daily fee of $135 per hotel room, the report said, but the upgrades were part of a package deal that added to the overall cost of the conference.

The report was made public on the same day leaders of six conservative groups testified at a congressional hearing, where they told lawmakers they had endured abuse from IRS agents as they spent years trying to qualify for tax-exempt status.

In often-emotional testimony, the conservatives described IRS demands for details about employees’ and group officials’ political activities and backgrounds, for comments they’d posted on websites, for videos of meetings and information on whether speakers at such sessions voiced political views. Some said it took three years to get their tax-exempt status; others said they were still waiting.

“I’m a born-free American woman,” Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party of Alabama, tearfully told the lawmakers. “I’m telling my government, ‘You’ve forgotten your place.’ ”

Federal regulations say that tax-exempt social welfare organizations can engage in some political activity but the activity cannot be their primary mission. It is up to the IRS to make that determination of their level of political activity, and some Democrats at Tuesday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing noted that some liberal groups also have had a hard time winning tax-exempt status from the IRS.

However, revelations about IRS agents improperly targeting tea party and other groups have led to investigations by three congressional committees and the Justice Department. One top IRS official was forced to resign, another retired and a third was placed on paid administrative leave.

Tuesday’s report by the inspector general suggests the agency has struggled with management issues beyond the division that handles tax-exempt applications. According to the report, expensive employee conferences were approved with few restraints or safeguards until new rules were imposed in 2011.

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

All of these conferences would violate new rules imposed by the White House budget office in 2012 that cap expenses for a single conference at $500,000.

Spending on IRS conferences dropped substantially, from $37.6 million in the 2010 budget year to $6.2 million in 2011 and then to $4.9 million last year, according to the IRS.

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel called the conferences “an unfortunate vestige from a prior era.”

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