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IRS spent $50m on conferences in two years, report finds

WASHINGTON (AP) — A government watchdog has found that the Internal Revenue Service spent about $50 million to hold at least 220 conferences for employees between 2010 and 2012, according to a House committee.

That total included $4 million for an August 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., for which the agency did not negotiate lower room rates, even though that is standard government practice, according to a statement by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

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Instead, some of the 2,600 attendees received benefits, including baseball tickets and stays in presidential suites that normally cost $1,500 to $3,500 per night. In addition, 15 outside speakers were paid a total of $135,000 in fees, with one paid $17,000 to talk about ‘‘leadership through art,’’ the House committee said.

The report by Treasury Department’s inspector general, set to be released Tuesday, comes as the IRS already is facing bipartisan criticism after agency officials disclosed they had targeted tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny.

Agency officials and the Obama administration have said that treatment was inappropriate. But the political tempest is showing no signs of ebbing and has put the White House on the defensive. Three congressional committees are investigating and a Justice Department criminal investigation is underway, and President Barack Obama has replaced the IRS’s acting commissioner while two other top officials have stepped aside.

Asked for comment Sunday, Treasury spokeswoman Sabrina Siddiqui referred to a department statement Friday that said that since 2011, it has ‘‘increased scrutiny on all bureau travel and conferences and instituted stringent safeguards and policies.’’

On Friday, the new acting commissioner, Danny Werfel, released a statement on the forthcoming report criticizing the Anaheim meeting.

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‘‘This conference is an unfortunate vestige from a prior era,’’ Werfel said. ‘‘While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, many of the expenses associated with it were inappropriate and should not have occurred.’’

Werfel, a former official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said reducing excessive personal travel has been ‘‘a personal priority for me’’ and that ‘‘taxpayers should take comfort that a conference like this would not take place today.’’

Appearing Sunday on CNN’s ‘‘State of the Union,’’ the House committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., expressed skepticism.

‘‘Understand that some of the things that they’re saying, ‘Well, this wouldn’t happen again,’ they would still happen again,’’ Issa said.

Issa’s committee also released excerpts from interviews congressional investigators conducted last week with two IRS employees from the agency’s Cincinnati office. The interviews, Issa contended, indicate that office was receiving direction from Washington, although that has not been proved so far.

The excerpts made available offered no direct evidence that the targeting was directed from Washington. But at least one of the IRS employees said they were told by a supervisor that the need to collect the reports came from Washington.

One of the workers also expressed skepticism that the Cincinnati office originated the screening without direction from Washington, according to the excerpts.

The interviews were conducted interviewed by Republican and Democratic aides on Issa’s committee and also involved aides from both parties from the House Ways and Means Committee.

One of the employees was a lower-level worker while the other was higher ranked, said one congressional aide, but the committee did not release their names or titles.

The IRS Cincinnati office handles applications from around the country for tax-exempt status. A Treasury inspector general’s report in May said employees there began searching for applications from tea party and conservative groups in their hunt for organizations that primarily do work related to election campaigns.

That May report blamed ‘‘ineffective management’’ for letting that screening occur for more than 18 months between 2010 and 2012. But that report — and three hearings by congressional committees — have produced no specific evidence that the Cincinnati workers were ordered by anyone in Washington to target conservatives.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, did not immediately provide a statement in response to the report or the transcript excerpts.

The latest report on IRS conferences will be the subject of a hearing Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Werfel is scheduled to make his first congressional appearance as acting commissioner Monday when he appears Monday before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

According to congressional aides briefed by the inspector general’s office, the IRS also did not formally seek competitive bids for the city where the agency’s 2010 conference was held, for the event planner who assisted the agency, or for the speakers.

The aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a confidential congressional briefing, said other benefits given to some attendees at the Anaheim IRS conference included vouchers for free drinks and some tickets to attend Angels baseball games.

‘‘So they end up with free drinks, they ended up with tickets to games, basically kickbacks,’’ Issa said on CNN.

Two videos produced by the IRS were shown at the Anaheim conference. In one, agency employees did a parody of ‘‘Star Trek’’ while dressed like the TV show’s characters; the second shows more than a dozen IRS workers dancing on a stage. The two cost the agency more than $50,000 to make, aides said.

The lecturer who spoke about art through leadership produced six paintings while speaking with subjects that included Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan, the rock singer Bono and the Statue of Liberty, the aides said.

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