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Added to criticism of IRS: luxury rooms at conferences

Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp greeted Tea Party activist Becky Gerritson before Tuesday’s hearing.

MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp greeted Tea Party activist Becky Gerritson before Tuesday’s hearing.

WASHINGTON — Already under siege, the Internal Revenue Service was cited by a government watchdog for a $4.1 million training conference featuring luxury rooms and free drinks, even as conservative figures told Congress Tuesday that they had been abused for years while seeking tax-exempt status.

A total of 132 IRS officials received room upgrades at the 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif., according to the report being released by J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration.

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One official stayed five nights in a room that regularly goes for $3,500 a night, George’s report said, and another stayed four nights in a room that regularly goes for $1,499 a night. The agency paid a flat daily fee of $135 per hotel room, it said, but the upgrades were part of a package deal that added to the overall cost of the conference. Without the upgrades, the IRS could have negotiated a lower room rate, as required by agency procedures.

The inspector general’s report was surfacing as the IRS came under fire again in connection with its targeting of conservative groups during the 2010 and 2012 elections.

In all, the IRS held 225 employee conferences from 2010 through 2012, at a total cost of $49 million, the report said. The Anaheim conference was the most expensive, but others were costly, too.

In 2010, for instance, the agency held a conference in Philadelphia that cost $2.9 million, one in San Diego that cost $1.2 million, and one in Atlanta that also cost $1.2 million.

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel has called the conferences ‘‘an unfortunate vestige from a prior era.’’ Werfel took over the agency about two weeks ago, after President Obama forced the previous acting commissioner to resign.

For more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, IRS agents in a Cincinnati office singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status, according to a previous report by George.

On Tuesday, leaders of conservative groups complained to Congress that they were abused by the Internal Revenue Service for years as they sought tax-exempt status, including questions one Iowa antiabortion group said it got about prayer meetings.

The testimony of the Tea Party and other conservative organizations before the House Ways and Means Committee was the first time groups complaining about the IRS’s treatment have appeared directly before lawmakers since the IRS revealed the problem — and apologized for it — last month. They talked about applications for tax-exempt status that took three years for approval — or in some cases haven’t yet been approved — and queries from the agency about their donors, video of meetings, and whether speakers at such gatherings expressed political views.

‘‘I’m a born-free American woman,’’ Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, tearfully told the committee, adding, ‘‘I’m telling my government, you’ve forgotten your place.’’

Sue Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, an antiabortion group, said the IRS asked them about ‘‘the content of our prayers.’’

In a written statement, Werfel, the acting IRS chief, said the stories the witnesses told at Tuesday’s hearing highlight agency actions that were ‘‘inappropriate and unacceptable, and we owe it to the nation to do better.’’ He said he has ordered his agency to quickly review the cases involved.

At Tuesday’s Ways and Means hearing, committee chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, said the conservative groups were being singled out for their beliefs.

‘‘They are Americans who did what we ask people to do every day — add their voice to the dialogue that defines our country,’’ Camp said. ‘‘And for pursuing that passion, for simply exercising their First Amendment rights — the freedoms of association, expression, and religion — the IRS singled them out.’’

The committee’s top Democrat, Representative Sander Levin, said it was time to correct the IRS’s problems.

‘‘You are owed an apology,’’ Levin, from Michigan, told the witnesses. ‘‘We say to you that each of us is committed to doing our part to ensure that.’’

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