Money & Business

Audit Confirms Lavish IRS Conference Spending

By / Jun 5, 2013 iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A new inspector general’s report details how the IRS spent millions on a single conference, prompting renewed calls in Congress for a crackdown on federal spending on meetings.

The embattled Internal Revenue Service has come under fire again this week—this time for failing to control its spending on conferences, a new inspector general’s report said.

The report, released June 4 by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, found that the agency spent nearly $50 million on 225 conferences since 2010.

In particular, the IG scrutinized expenses incurred as part of a three-day IRS management conference in Anaheim, California, in 2010. The agency spent more than $4.1 million on the three-day event, including hefty speakers’ fees—one was paid $27,000 (including first-class travel expenses) to give two speeches. Another $17,000 went to have original works of art painted during two separate engagements at the event, according to the report. The revelations come just weeks after the IRS admitted spending more than $50,000 to produce an employee training video that spoofed the 1960s TV series Star Trek.

Amid fresh calls from lawmakers for a crackdown on federal agency conference spending, the U.S. Travel Association urged Congress to proceed with caution on any legislative response. “It is incumbent on our leaders to not lose sight of the value that responsible travel and face-to-face meetings create for constituents,” President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement. “It is often the most efficient and effective way for government professionals to accomplish the requirements of their roles.”

Bad timing? The timing is difficult for the IRS, which also is in the midst of an investigation and leadership shakeup concerning accusations that it unfairly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status of tea party and right-leaning nonprofit organizations. Inspector General J. Russell George’s office has yet to uncover evidence that delays in approving the applications were politically motivated, Reuters reported.

The IG’s critique of IRS conference spending was more pointed. “Effective cost management is especially important given the current economic environment and focus on government efficiency,” George said in a statement coinciding with the release of the audit. “Certain of the IRS’s expenses associated with the Anaheim conference do not appear to be a good use of taxpayer funds.”

Damage control: Acting IRS chief Danny Werfel seemed to admit as much when he testified before Congress on June 3. “The agency stands ready to confront the problems that occurred, hold accountable those who acted inappropriately, be open about what happened, and permanently fix these problems so that such missteps do not occur again,” the Associated Press and other news media quoted Werfel as telling the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

Whether that commitment is enough to fix the agency’s troubles and repair its flagging reputation remains to be seen. “I am absolutely appalled at the apparent waste of taxpayer dollars on frivolous conferences,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) was quoted as saying in the same Associated Press report.  Added Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL), “It seems we have a new misstep every day at the IRS. We will have to think very carefully about how much money to provide to the IRS.”

Effects of cutbacks: The IRS isn’t the only government agency being forced to rethink its spending and travel policies. Widespread federal belt-tightening has prevented thousands of government employees from attending industry events after a separate inspector general’s report last year revealed that the General Services Administration spent more than $800,000 on a conference in the Las Vegas area.

Last summer, the U.S. Army was forced to apply for a budget waiver that would allow it to send more uniformed personnel to an annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) event. Though the event went on as planned, it did so on a smaller scale than in year’s past. The Army reportedly spent just $1.4 million on the event in 2012; over the previous four years, the military branch spent a combined $38 million to send nearly 10,000 employees to the conference.

 

Corey Murray

Corey Murray is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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