The price tags are embarrassing. $17,000 for a guy to give a speech while painting a portrait of Michael Jordan. $50,000 for videos including a Star Trek parody. $15,669 for customized bags stamped with "Leading into the Future," the theme of the $4.1 million conference the IRS held for employees in 2010. It's a cost that should have been avoided, according to an Inspector General's report released today and its champion, Rep. Darrell Issa.
Luckily, the president signed an executive order in 2011 barring such excess. Because of the attention paid to such extravagance, the agency's spending on conferences dropped 87 percent between 2010 and 2012. Which would be close to the end of the story if it weren't for the three politically-charged letters on the cover: I. R. S.
Released by the office of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration — the same division that produced the now-infamous Tea Party audit — the new report on that 2010 conference runs 56 pages, thick with photos of presidential suites, lists of speakers' fees, and stills from the aforementioned video. (Since you obviously want to see it, it's here. It's pretty dumb.)
In testimony provided to the House Appropriations committee, Inspector General J. Russell George indicated that the investigation began following a whistleblower tip, not at the behest of a member of Congress. A call to George's office earlier today wasn't able to clarify when the investigation began, but its scope clearly suggests that it was well before the IRS' current problems began.
Issa got a hold of the report a little early, and went to CNN on Sunday to talk it up. Issa's been criticizing IRS spending for a while now, so the report provided a natural extension of his effort. Host Candy Crowley led with the issue.
If you stick with the video for the first minute-and-a-half, though, you'll notice Crowley's first question: "You heard from the Acting Director recently, who said, 'Look, we've fixed this. They can no longer spend money like this.' So what's the hearing about? Why are you having it?" Issa's first answer: The IRS is still covering up the role of Washington in the Tea Party scandal.
Crowley's right. A 2010 exposé of excessive spending at a General Services Administration conference was one of the factors behind a November 2011 executive order from the president, targeting such expenses. It includes eight different directives that agencies are meant to follow in order to cut costs. The third deals with travel — the cost that comprised $3.7 million of the $4.1 million for that 2010 conference.
And 2010 appears to have been an exception for the IRS. In each of the two years following, both the cost and number of those conferences declined.
Nor were TIGTA's findings about some of the ridiculous indulgences new. In March, the IRS apologized for the dumb Star Trek video, calling it "frivolous," and saying that "a video of this type would not be made today." But the IRS is on the hot seat, and, to mix metaphors, this report offers another coal for the fire underneath it.
So Issa will use it. This Thursday, his House Oversight committee will hold a hearing called "Collected and Wasted: The IRS Spending Culture and Conference Abuses." The ostensible focus of that hearing will be the TIGTA report. Its intent, however, won't be to excoriate the IRS for a 2010 problem that's already largely been fixed. It will be to call out the IRS in general. As he did on CNN, Issa will likely ensure that the hearing quickly pivots from the new TIGTA report to the old one. That one is actually a scandal.
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Photo: A still from the IRS video. (AP)