- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2013

While it’s getting the most attention, the $4.1 million IRS conference in California in 2010 that has Congress up in arms isn’t even the costliest event the tax agency hosted over the last few years.

When calculated on a per-person basis, the Anaheim conference’s $1,600-per-attendee price tag is only the 46th most-expensive one the agency has held in the past three years, and is dwarfed by the $5,600 paid for each attendee at a 2012 training session for new employees.

Two other costly training sessions in 2012 came to nearly $5,000 and $3,600 a person, according to a Washington Times analysis of data from an inspector general’s report this week highlighting high-dollar IRS conferences over the past three years.

On Wednesday, the IRS put two officials on administrative leave for their involvement in the 2010 California conference.

The scrutiny over the conferences comes as the IRS is already on the defensive over its targeting of conservative groups for invasive questions about their membership and activities and for “slow-walking” their applications for tax-exempt status.

An inspector general’s report released this week highlighted the $4.1 million California 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.

SEE ALSO: Conservative groups sue IRS, Eric Holder for ‘unlawful targeting’ of tax forms

The report could also land Treasury Department officials in hot water.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and Congress’ top waste-watcher, sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew this week asking why his department concealed those conferences from him in 2012, when he specifically asked for a list of all department events with 50 or more people.

The Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, sent Mr. Coburn a list of just five conferences, with a total cost of $500,000, none of which involved the IRS. This week’s audit showed more than 150 conferences in 2010 alone, with a total cost of $37.6 million.

Mr. Coburn said he has referred the matter to investigators to see why Treasury concealed the IRS conferences from him.

The Treasury Department declined to comment Wednesday, saying only that it will respond directly to Mr. Coburn.

The House oversight committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the conferences, where the Anaheim event is likely to dominate.

SEE ALSO: MSNBC host Martin Bashir: IRS is the new N-word in ‘war’ on Obama

Inspector General J. Russell George, who is slated to testify at the hearing, identified a number of potential problems with the California conference, including spending $15,669 on commemorative tote bags, $19,210 on lanyards, travel mugs and picture frames with the IRS division’s logo, and $27,000 on promotional giveaways such as engraved pens, can coolers and “Post-it” notes.

He said IRS employees accepted room upgrades in exchange for paying the full per diem nightly rate, when they could have instead taken regular rooms and tried to negotiate down the price.

The IRS also violated its own tax rules by letting some local California employees stay at the posh Anaheim hotels without requiring them to pay taxes on the per diem expenses.

And the IRS couldn’t even provide documentation to prove that the $4.1 million price tag included all of the costs the agency incurred to host the conference.

The IRS 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 the total number of attendees, also dropped.

But the cost per conference has grown, according to The Times’ analysis of the data.

The cost per conference in 2010 was $1,167 per person, and stayed the same for 2011. But it ballooned to $1,736 per person last year, powered in large part by those three training sessions that each topped $3,000 per person.

An IRS spokesman said those three events were specialized three-week training sessions for new examiners, and the expenses covered travel, lodging and incidentals.

The two most expensive ones involved training examiners in the Small Business and Self Employed Division on auditing partnerships and “S corporations.” The third training session was for the Tax Exempt and Governmental Entities unit to go over procedures for auditing retirement plans such as 401(k) programs.

“The training of front-line examiners, working on these type of highly specialized audits, is vital to IRS enforcement efforts,” said spokesman Bruce Friedland.

It was unclear why the three most expensive conferences were all clustered in 2012.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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