The April 17 column by Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta incorrectly reported results of an ethics survey given to Internal Revenue Service managers. The IRS managers were asked how often they thought IRS employees in general would keep quiet about wrongdoing when they saw it, would use their positions to intimidate personal enemies and would lie to protect themselves. The IRS managers were not asked, as the column incorrectly stated, whether they themselves actually engaged in such conduct. (Published 4/25/91)
When the Internal Revenue Service decided to teach its employees how to earn the public trust, it sent them to a mountain retreat at taxpayers' expense. For $1,850 a person, plus travel expenses, 53 IRS employees from around the country learned about ethics.
If what they learned will save them from ripping off the taxpayers at their next ethics seminar, it may have been $124,500 well spent. But we doubt it.
The two four-day ethics seminars were held in February and March at the Coolfont Resort and Conference Center in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. The resort features a fitness center, pool, sauna, hot tubs, massages, facials, outdoor jogging course, croquet court and horseshoe pit. The resort brochure calls it, "a setting for those seeking a place to enjoy leisure time, have a conference, or to live." Not to mention a grand place to sit around and jaw about the difference between right and wrong.
Hired to conduct the seminars was the staff of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics. A spokeswoman for the institute said seminar participants were kept too busy to enjoy the luxuries of the resort. What a shame. That means the expense was a waste in more ways than one. At the very least, the IRS employees should have been allowed to soak in the hot tubs while checking 1040 forms. That way the taxpayers could have felt they were getting their money's worth.
Our associate Scott Sleek learned that the IRS could have arranged the ethics training in-house, albeit a house with no spa. The Justice Department provides a variety of ethics courses to federal employees at no cost. The IRS said that the Justice Department program did not meet its needs.
Participants in the IRS seminars were taught how to host one-day training workshops at IRS offices throughout the country.
While the IRS's choice of a setting is questionable, the subject matter was necessary. The agency's reputation has been marred by a variety of misdeeds exposed over the last two years. For example, an IRS staff worker, angry at someone who sued him, retaliated by launching a tax investigation of his enemy. Another used inside information to tip off a friend who happened to be a drug dealer the IRS was investigating. In Los Angeles, a group of businessmen apparently talked an IRS employee into investigating their enemies, when coincidentally, the IRS employee was applying for a job with the businessmen. And three IRS managers in Cleveland, claiming to be on an undercover mission, misspent federal funds by joy-riding on a government boat during working hours.
The Josephson Institute conducted a survey of top IRS managers and nearly half said they would use their positions to intimidate personal enemies. A majority said they would look the other way if they saw wrongdoing, and many condoned lying to the news media and government officials to protect themselves.
Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) saw a copy of the survey, which had been leaked to a group called the National Coalition of IRS Whistleblowers. After reviewing the survey, Symms promised he would look into the ethical climate at the IRS.