June 4th, 2013
12:06 PM ET
11 months ago

Report shows lavish spending at IRS conference

Updated 3:44 p.m. ET Tuesday 6/4

(CNN) – The Internal Revenue Service spent millions of taxpayer dollars on everything from event planners' commissions to speakers' fees to guest prizes to parody videos at a 2010 conference, an audit of the agency shows.

The beleaguered agency - already snared in controversy over its targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status - spent $4.1 million on a 2010 conference in Anaheim, California, with "questionable expenses" comprising much of the budget, according to the report released Tuesday by the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration.

The audit notes that a large chunk of that money - about $3.2 million - came from unused funds allocated for hiring. This was in the same year that the IRS began to single out conservative and tea party groups that sought tax-exempt office, in part because the agency said it did not have the personnel to handle the overwhelming amount of applications pouring in that year.

"Effective cost management is especially important given the current economic environment and focus on Government efficiency," Inspector General J. Russell George said in a statement. "Certain of the IRS's expenses associated with the Anaheim conference do not appear to be a good use of taxpayer funds."

Read the audit report

The August 2010 conference, held by the Small Business/Self-Employed division, had 2,600 attendees at three hotels in Anaheim. The audit states that none of the guests were required to document their attendance at the training sessions.

While the division made 1,516 hires that year, not all of them were on board the full year, so the division used the unused money for the three-day conference. Managers also indicated the used additional training funds for the event.

The audit notes that the IRS–a stickler for record keeping–could only provide documentation for $4.1 million. The division estimated it actually spent $4,297,285, but could not source that additional amount, according to the report.

The IRS used event planners instead of IRS employees or contractors to set up the conference, giving no incentive to get lower rates and leaving the government to pay $135 per night for all rooms. Instead of working for favorable room rates, both event planners got $66,500 in commission from the hotels, according to the audit.

Other expenses included more than $135,000 on outside speakers–including a $17,000 fee for a speaker who created paintings on stage to make his point that one must free "the thought process to find creative solutions to challenges."

"The speaker created six paintings at these two keynote sessions (three at each session). These paintings consisted of the following portraits: Albert Einstein (one); Michael Jordan (one); Abraham Lincoln (one); U2 singer Bono (one); and the Statute of Liberty (two)," the audit states.

While two of the paintings were given away at the conference and three were donated, one was reported lost.

The IRS also paid $11,400 to a speaker who specializes in happiness and positive psychology. He led four 90-minute workshops.

Another speaker received $27,500 for two hour-long speeches. The speaker's fee included a $2,500 flight in first class.

The presentation was based on the speaker's published book and, according to the contract, the speaker was to "share how seemingly random combinations of ideas can drive radical innovations."

On a somewhat ironic note, one of the sessions in the programs lists a speech given by IRS speakers titled: "Political Savvy: How Not to Shoot Yourself in the Foot."

In other expenses, IRS employees doled out $35,800 on three planning trips before the conference.

Forty-five employees who lived in the local area got to stay in the hotels and received daily per diems, amounting to more than $30,000 total.

And attendees got numerous gifts and promotional items from conference organizers–totaling more than $64,000. This included imprinted bags, imprinted hard-covered journals, lanyards, travel mugs, picture frames, and various promotion items, according to the audit.

Some attendees were also given Los Angeles Angels baseball tickets as contest prizes, which the division said came as a donation from the hotels.

At the three hotels, 132 suite upgrades were provided each night of the conference, representing nearly 5% of the 2,830 rooms booked. The upgrades ranged from $299 to $1,000 per night.

The hotels provided 10 free rooms each night, which were used by paid speakers and non-IRS support staff, according to the audit. Two of the event planners were given free rooms for 19 nights.

While attendees received a daily $71 per diem, they were also given two free drink coupons, daily continental breakfasts, and beverages and snacks during breaks.

The SB/SE division spent more than $50,000 on videos for the conference. One of the videos, CNN has reported, had a Star-Trek theme, while the other was a parody on IRS employees learning how to do the Cupid Shuffle dance.

Because the IRS did not keep track of all expenses for the videos, the inspector general's office estimates that it took 62 staff hours to produce the piece at a minimum hourly rate of $50.

While the focus of the audit was on the 2010 conference, the inspector general looked at all IRS conferences between 2010 and 2012, finding that the agency held 225 conferences during that time at an estimated cost of $49 million. Nearly $38 million of that came in 2010 alone.

The inspector general's office said it made nine recommendations to the IRS for future conferences, and the agency agreed to all nine.

Responding to the report, the IRS maintained that the 2010 conference was needed to make sure managers had proper training for "significant new programs, major staff and manager turnover and a substantial increase in security threats."

The Small Business/Self-Employed division amounts to nearly one-third of the agency's total work force, and at the time of the 2010 conference, almost 30% of the division's managers had been hired in the prior two years.

However, acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel, who was appointed last month after his predecessor stepped down amid scandal, said in a statement that the 2010 conference was an "unfortunate vestige from a prior era" and such a conference would not take place today.

"I will continue my efforts and ensure tight spending protocols are in place to protect the use of taxpayer dollars," he said.

According to the official IRS response, written by IRS chief financial officer Pamela LaRue, the agency had already put in place an "extensive series of procedures" and has "dramatically cut" expenses for conferences since 2010. For example, LaRue notes, all conferences must now be approved centrally rather than by individual units at the IRS.

The number of large meetings decreased by 84% and the costs for those meetings decreased by 87% by 2012, LaRue writes. The IRS predicts costs for 2013 will be even lower.

Travel and training expenses are also down by more than 80%, according to the IRS. The agency now does 90% of its training hours online–nearly double the amount from 2010.

"The IRS takes seriously our obligations to be good stewards of government resources," LaRue writes, adding that the agency has reached $1 billion in savings since 2009.

As for the use of event planners and the receipt of room upgrades noted in the audit, LaRue says those items did not involve "any additional government resources."

IRS officials will continue to make their case this week when they appear Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform.


Filed under: IRS
soundoff (212 Responses)
  1. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    This is inexcusable. They didn't have to go across the country to have this conference. Presidential suites, line dancing, etc., should come out of your pocket, not the taxpayers. That being said, this is what was going on under that Bush flunkie of a director.

    June 4, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  2. Wake up People!

    We know, we know. Obama ordered them to do it!

    IMPEACHMENT!!

    June 4, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  3. Malory Archer

    While this does seem over the top, how does it stack up on year-over-year comparisons? Was 2010 spending an outier? Are we supposed to be outraged by 2010, or the overall picture? Howsabout showing a 10-year graph of these types of expenditures so we can see the entire forest and not just one tree?

    June 4, 2013 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  4. Rudy NYC

    This is old news. We've known about the parody videos of "Star Trek" and "Gilligan's Island" for a year already. Why is the press treating this like it is new news? Because of a line dance video has emerged? It was filmed in 2010, before any of this came to light.

    The deeply rooted culture within government agencies is being rooted out, and this culture within the IRS has already been addressed.

    June 4, 2013 12:17 pm at 12:17 pm |
  5. Lynda/Minnesota

    From the article:

    "However, the IRS admitted the 2010 conference was out of line and the agency has changed since then."

    and also from the article:

    "The number of large meetings decreased by 84% and the costs for those meetings decreased by 87% by 2012, LaRue wrote. The IRS predicts costs for 2013 will be even lower."

    ending thus:

    "Travel and training expenses are also down by more than 80%, according to the IRS. The agency now does 90% of its training hours online–nearly double the amount from 2010."

    So. Do I get upset that the IRS had a problem .... or do I acknowledge that the IRS is trying to overcome by putting in place checkpoints to correct the problem?

    Decisions, decisions.

    June 4, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  6. HenryMiller

    The IRS needs to be shut down and the 16th Amendment needs to be repealed—the federal government ought to be funded by whatever the state legislatures agree to give it, and not by extorting money from defenceless citizens.

    June 4, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  7. Pam from Iowa

    Lavish misuse of taxpayer money has been going on for decades across all governmental departments.
    What really gets my goat are those members of Congress who act like this is the first time this has come to light!
    Come on! Take a look at your own lavish and wasteful spending of taxpayer money.

    June 4, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  8. California Gary

    Party on IRS dudes.........party on. Who would have thought that a bunch of bean counting nerds would know how to party down like that?

    June 4, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  9. Walter

    Spin away little libbies, spin away.

    June 4, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  10. Stan Sitwell

    The government's budget situation was just fine before federal income tax. Let's get rid of the 16th Amendment.

    June 4, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  11. CJ

    It's only taxpayer money, not like its 'real' money...why is everyone making such a fuss?

    June 4, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  12. June Cleavers Beaver

    Yes we know we know. It is Bush's fault !

    June 4, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  13. oracle

    I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.

    June 4, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  14. B Schmitt

    To all new graduates, the IRS is a really fun place to work for. Check out their parties!

    June 4, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  15. Government waste rules

    The IRS likes to party after it audits conservatives – oh yeah!!!

    June 4, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  16. Brian

    How many other government agencies are doing the same wasted spending? Who's really the 1%?

    June 4, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  17. Andrew

    It starts at the top. Obama spends money like a rap star and that mentality and attitude has been trickling down the government agencies

    June 4, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  18. Thomas

    We need to have stronger oversight over these agencies. It was not that long ago that the GAO (which IS supposed to provide oversight) had their overspending scandal.

    Someone in these agencies is making the approval decision for these expenses. They need to be removed from their position. Not some minion to be sacrificed. But the actual manager who had the authority to approve this wasteful spending. They need to go.

    June 4, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  19. IRS Money Lender

    How about a tax refund if 50 million with interest to the American public?

    June 4, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  20. Justin

    And in two weeks something else will come into light and this will be forgotten about....

    Nothing will be done, so why bother.

    June 4, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  21. john

    This is what happens when government agencies get too large and are not well accounted for. The question is if any huge government organization can really be efficient and accountable. We must simplify the tax code and massively shrink (or eliminate) the IRS. Horrible use of our tax dollars...wasted.

    June 4, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  22. Jackie

    I do not approve of this use of MY money. I am glad for this report and now SOMEONE needs to watch them more closely. Ahh....yet ANOTHER governmental agency to patrol misuse.

    June 4, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  23. Dave

    "Political Savvy: How Not to Shoot Yourself in the Foot." Priceless.

    June 4, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  24. Kevin

    The IRS was crying about being furloughed - they deserve it with their reckless spending

    June 4, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  25. Al

    Fire them all and stop the present tax code and put in place a flat tax. There is no need for this disgraceful abuse of working people's money. If they want to conduct that abuse let them do it with their own dime. I would expect the peoples tax dollars be returned, but since the IRS is officially in bed with the White House they are out there celebrating all the bad things they do and will not be held accountable to for anything they have done wrong.

    These people need to be made an example of and they should once again fear the people and we the people need to turn the table on the Government we should not need to fear the government ever again.

    June 4, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
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