Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) will hold a hearing tomorrow on what he says is lavish spending at the Internal Revenue Service. It even has a nifty title: “Collected and Wasted: The IRS Spending Culture and Conference Abuses.” But as with most things involving the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, you have to separate fact from fiction, hyperbole from the ordinary.
The source of the discussion is the rather dryly titled “Review of the August 2010 Small Business/Self-Employed Division’s Conference in Anaheim, California” that was written by Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration. Issa says the report is on “excessive IRS conference spending and abuses of taxpayer dollars.” He charged that “Between 2010 and 2012, the IRS held at least 220 conferences, which cost approximately $50 million.” And he was in high dudgeon over the Anaheim conference.
In one example, the IRS spent $4 million dollars on a manager’s conference for 2,600 people in Anaheim, Calif. in August, 2010. Contrary to established government contracting practices, the outside event planners did not negotiate lower room rates and instead focused on “perks” for IRS employees. Several IRS employees stayed in presidential suites, which rate at $1,500-$3,500 per night. Moreover, 15 outside speakers were paid $135,000 – including one speaker who lectured on “leadership through art” for $17,000.
As the inspector general’s report notes, there were “questionable expenses related to the conference” in Anaheim. You may recall that this is the same conference where those silly “Star Trek” and “Cupid Shuffle” parody videos featuring IRS employees were shown. While there’s plenty — and I mean plenty — for which the IRS deserves criticism (i.e., the IRS didn’t even keep track of the expenses for producing those videos), I want to squeeze some of the hyperbole out of Issa’s assertions.
Ron Fournier of the National Journal excoriated Issa’s penchant for cherry-picking evidence in a blistering piece on Monday. And that’s what the congressman has done with some of his allegations. Issa is right about the number of conferences and their expense between 2010 and 2012. There were 225 conferences with a total price tag of $48,631,799. What Issa doesn’t tell anyone is that spending on these IRS jamborees during that same period plummeted by 80 percent and that the number of conferences fell from 152 in 2010 to 24 in 2012.
Now, about those hotel rooms. Did IRS employees stay in presidential suites all over Anaheim? They sure did. But they didn’t pay “$1,500-$3,500 per night.” As the IG report clearly states, “[T]he hotels charged the IRS the Federal Government rate of $135 per night for all rooms (including suites) provided.”
Falsely accusing the IRS of not negotiating a lower room rate, Issa said on CNN that IRS employees at the Anaheim conference “ended up with free drinks, they ended up with tickets to games — basically kickbacks.” Never mind that it says on page 18 of the IG that the “free drinks” and food were part of the negotiated deal with the hotels.
And those baseball tickets? If you listen to Issa you’d swear that all 2,069 IRS employees at the Anaheim conference swarmed Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Nope. There were just 24 tickets to two Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball games that were donated by the area hotels and the Anaheim Convention and Visitors Bureau. According to the IG report (page 19), they “were used as contest prizes.” Better still, “IRS management stated that they relied upon advice from IRS Chief Counsel personnel for the appropriate treatment of these tickets.”
The IG report is by no means a love letter to the IRS about its conference spending. The excesses outlined and the lack of expense tracking in many instance will make the federal government’s most hated agency seem that much more out of touch. That Issa feels he has to exaggerate the obvious troubles at the IRS is pathetic. More important, his actions further damage the American people’s faith in their government. In another proceeding last month, Attorney General Eric Holder had an apt description for Issa’s behavior that is appropriate here: “Shameful.”
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