WASHINGTON (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service, already under fire after officials disclosed that the agency targeted conservative groups, faces increased scrutiny because of an inspector general’s report that it spent about $50 million to hold at least 220 conferences for employees between 2010 and 2012.
The report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general about conference spending is set to be released Tuesday. The department issued a statement Sunday saying the administration “has already taken aggressive and dramatic action to reduce conference spending.”
The White House and the agency were on the defensive before the report on conference spending. Agency officials and the Obama administration have said the targeting of conservative groups was inappropriate, but the political tempest is showing no signs of ebbing.
Three congressional committees are investigating, a Justice Department criminal investigation is under way, President Barack Obama has replaced the IRS’ acting commissioner and two other top officials have stepped aside.
The chairman of one of those committees, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also released excerpts of congressional investigators’ interviews with employees of the IRS office in Cincinnati. Issa said the interviews indicated the employees were directed by Washington to subject tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to tough scrutiny.
The closest the excerpts came to direct evidence that Washington had ordered the screening was one employee saying that “all my direction” came from an official who the excerpt said was in Washington. The top Democrat on that panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said none of the employees interviewed have so far identified any IRS officials in Washington as ordering that targeting.
The conference spending included $4 million for an August 2010 gathering in Anaheim, Calif., for which the agency did not negotiate lower room rates, even though that is standard government practice, according to a statement by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Instead, some of the 2,600 attendees received benefits, including baseball tickets and stays in presidential suites that normally cost $1,500 to $3,500 per night. In addition, 15 outside speakers were paid a total of $135,000 in fees, with one paid $17,000 to talk about “leadership through art,” the House committee said.
IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said Sunday that spending on large agency conferences with 50 or more participants fell from $37.6 million in the 2010 budget year to $4.9 million in 2012. The government’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1 the previous calendar year.
On Friday, the new acting commissioner, Danny Werfel, released a statement on the forthcoming report criticizing the Anaheim meeting.
“This conference is an unfortunate vestige from a prior era,” Werfel said. “While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have occurred.”