The Internal Revenue Service held 225 employee conferences between 2010 and 2012, at a total cost of $49 million, according to a new report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). The report also revealed the embattled agency used funding originally slated to hire front-line employees to foot most of the bill for a $4.1 million conference held in Anaheim, Calif., in 2010.
Absent from the IG’s report, however, are any indications of widespread fraud or contracting improprieties. The report also noted numerous times that many of the practices detailed did not explicitly violate IRS policy at the time they took place.
Auditors zeroed in on the Anaheim conference, held for more than 2,600 employees in the agency’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division, because it was the most expensive training event hosted by the IRS in the years examined.
Combined spending of about $64,328 for promotional items, including 800 lanyards, 75 travel mugs and 2,800 spiral journals
The organizers of the Anaheim conference also circumvented established IRS guidelines, the IG found, because they used private party planners to book hotel rooms instead of IRS officials whose job it is to locate cost-effective sites for training events.
IRS paid a flat rate of $135 per hotel room — the government-approved per diem amount. But the use of private planners increased the risk that the government would pay more for the conference, because the planners “had no incentive to negotiate a lower government room rate,” auditors wrote in the report.
Some 132 IRS employees received hotel-room upgrades and other perks, the report noted. IRS officials said the extras were complimentary and did not add to the overall cost of the conference.
But TIGTA disagreed.
“We question whether the room rate could have been negotiated at a lower rate if some of these services were not included and event planners were not used,” the report stated.
Many practices didn’t violate policies at the time
While much of the lavish spending may not pass the common-sense test, according to the IG’s report, it didn’t necessarily violate IRS rules and procedures at the time.
For example, TIGTA said it could not obtain “reasonable assurance” that the $4.1 million the IRS said it spent on the conference — actually less than the $4.3 million organizers anticipated spending — is an accurate depiction of the true cost because IRS officials failed to keep documentation.
But at the time, the agency did not have any guidelines requiring management to track and report conference costs, the report stated. It wasn’t until March 2012 that the IRS chief financial officer unveiled new rules for tracking and reviewing conference spending.
The IG cited the use of private party planners as putting IRS at risk for overpaying, but noted a lack of policy or guidance “outlining the appropriate use of non-governmental event planners and how these types of individuals should be selected for use by IRS management.”
In November 2012, officials at the Treasury Department, which the IRS is a part of, limited the use of private planners and required prior approval from Treasury’s chief financial officer to use them to select conference sites.
Similarly, the thousands spent on swag and other promotional items didn’t violate specific IRS policies at the time, the IG said. In August 2011, however, the agency issued new guidance barring the purchase of promotional items for conferences unless authorized by the deputy commissioner.
In a response to the IG report, IRS officials said the type of spending uncovered by the IG is no longer allowed and won’t happen again.
“While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have been incurred,” the IRS said in a response to the IG report. “Taxpayers should take comfort in knowing that these kinds of expenses are no longer permitted and such a conference would not take place today.”
The IRS says it has not held any similar “large-scale” conferences since 2010 and has cut spending on travel and training by more than 80 percent since that time.
During a hearing Monday, in his first appearance before Congress since being named acting commissioner, Danny Werfel called the conferences “an unfortunate vestige from a prior era.”
According to the IG’s report, the small-business division used funding originally provided to hire additional staff to fund the lion’s share of the conference’s costs.
The division was allocated $132.7 million in its fiscal 2010 budget to hire additional staff, including front-line revenue agents and tax-compliance officers, as well as to provide training for the new hires, according to the IG report.
While the division did hire 1,516 additional employees during fiscal 2010, because they weren’t on the rolls for the entire year, there were still unused funds that would have lapsed at the end of the year. The division transferred $3.2 million from the hiring initiative to fund the conference, according to the IG.
While IRS business units have the authority to reprogram certain funding, the revelations of excessive conference spending funded in part through hiring initiatives makes it seem unlikely that Congress will be sympathetic to future requests for additional hiring dollars — even as the size of the IRS workforce has declined in recent years.
By the end of 2012, the total number of IRS employees — 97,717 — had fallen by 9 percent compared to 2010, according to a January TIGTA report.
The agency has become mired in scandal after officials acknowledged last month the agency had improperly targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status for further scrutiny.