New IRS chief sets out to win confidence

One goal: Serve with impartiality

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The new acting IRS commissioner pledged Thursday to work to safeguard citizens’ private information and tax dollars and ensure that the agency acts impartially as it looks to move forward after a bruising few weeks.

Danny Werfel, with about two weeks on the job under his belt, addressed questions from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for much of Thursday afternoon on the lightning rod issues of a recently-disclosed $4.1 million agency conference and the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status

Mr. Werfel said he is not aware of any systematic targeting of particular groups still going on within the agency.

“I’ve been here two weeks — there’s a lot to cover,” he said. “But I also would clarify that at this point in time I’m not aware of it because if I was, it would be stopped and you would be made aware.”

He said he’s had enough time to make some “very critical conclusions” since taking the job following the resignation of former acting commissioner Steven Miller.

“The three most important risks that I’ve learned so far in two weeks that we need to manage and keep at [a] very low risk level are the risk that the taxpayers would feel like their information is not well-protected, the risk of the IRS acting with partiality and not being impartial, and the risk that we’re not keeping our costs down,” he said.

Part of the agency’s improvement plan, he said is “to make sure we’re hitting it out of the park on those three issues.”

Committee members certainly didn’t treat Mr. Werfel with kid gloves, but they ripped into Faris Fink, the agency’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division Commissioner who appeared as Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” in a widely mocked video shown to employees at the $4.1 million conference in Anaheim in 2010.

“Federal workers around the country should be appalled that there were two standards,” said panel Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican. “And as taxpayers, we should be appalled that there are two standards — one for us and a different one that works for the IRS in some cases.”

Mr. Fink said the division has 24,000 employees and 30 percent of the managers were new, but that “in hindsight, many of the expenses incurred should have been more closely scrutinized or should not have been incurred at all.”

The subject of the hearing was the IRS “spending culture,” some of which was detailed in a recent inspector general’s report.

On Wednesday, the IRS put two officials on administrative leave for their involvement in the 2010 conference. The report released this week highlighted the conference, but also pointed to more than 200 other conferences the agency held over the last two years that had 50 or more employees in attendance.

The agency said it’s taken steps to cut conferences and control costs since 2010.

Indeed, while the agency spent $37.6 million on conferences in 2010, it spent only $6.2 million in 2011 and just $4.9 million in 2012. The number of conferences and overall attendee numbers also dropped.

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