J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, has noted in a revealing audit that the Internal Revenue Service's expenditures of $4.1 million for a training conference didn't "appear to be a good use of taxpayer funds." Really! Never let it be said that those government officials designated to watch over our best interests in their own agencies aren't perceptive.
You can't fool old J. Russell. He went right to the point after his office's perusal of spending for just one of the 225 "conferences" that totaled $49 million between 2010 and 2012. Perhaps the fact that the schooling wasn't done in a place like Las Vegas but in plain old Anaheim, Calif., made him a little more suspicious or incredulous. Well, at least the 2,609 IRS managers who attended weren't gambling with U.S. money.
For this shindig alone -- the most expensive of them all -- 25 employees spent $36,000 to scope out the site. The bill for outside speakers alone was a tidy $135,350, including $27,000 paid to one speaker (not counting a $2,500 first-class air ticket) and $11,430 doled out to another for some workshops. George probably looked at the spending as more than enough evidence that government service in this instance might just have a few more benefits than it should.
Supporting this contention, at least in the eyes of some unfortunates who have been beset by steely-eyed tax collectors, were the free engraved pens, briefcases and baseball tickets generously supplied to attendees. That's not to mention a big-time conference reception that supplied free drinks. None of that tacky cash-bar nonsense so many other federal agencies offer.
The agency that not only diligently pursues our money also demands detailed proof that we don't owe more than we claim we do, but its inspector general had to admit that the IRS managers were unable to provide documents about how much actually was spent on the Anaheim fling. Some of those dedicated to ensuring taxpayer integrity were afforded two-bedroom suites with amenities that included billiard tables. Apparently, the rate was what the government allows, if that makes things more acceptable.
Whatever happened to the policy that requires trying to negotiate the rates down? That apparently didn't happen, according to the audit.
"The solicitation and use of hotel upgrades increases the perception of wasteful spending," George said. Well, didn't we tell you he knew his apples when it comes to stating the obvious? You don't get to be an inspector general if you rode in on a load of pumpkins, if you'll allow me to mix my metaphors for this salad.
Seriously, folks, you would have a hard time making up this stuff. The guy Barack Obama named to head up the beleaguered agency, Commissioner Danny Werfel, has assumed a tough stand on these kinds of junkets -- er, activities. He responded to the audit by saying that taxpayers should take comfort that a conference of this kind never would happen again. Why aren't we totally reassured by that? He, too, displayed remarkable perceptiveness by adding that many of the expenditures "were over the top." You think?
Where do we go from here with an agency that is under fire? First, it was for questionable reviewing of applications for tax-exempt status by organizations linked to conservative causes -- those opposed by Obama. Now, it also faces a burgeoning scandal in profligate spending for what even a prudent man might regard as skating close to the edge of malfeasance. The dreaded Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will try to find out. Here comes GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California. Look out now!
Then, have you heard the one about these tax boys and girls who dressed up in Star Trek outfits to make a training video that cost $50,000? That's their estimate, at any rate, because they don't have the supporting documents to help the IG inspectors. What a hoot -- tax auditors without backup.
Beam me up, Scotty!
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.