Congress Grills IRS on Kooky, Pricey Conference

Both sides of the aisle took tax men to task over the wasteful 2010 outing, but as Ben Jacobs reports, the hearings paled next to allegations of Tea-Party targeting.

06.06.13 7:23 PM ET

Mr. Spock faced something worse than the wrath of Khan on Thursday: the wrath of Congress.

Faris Fink, the IRS official who played Spock in a much-mocked parody video made by the agency for a 2010 conference, testified before the House Government Oversight Committee. With him was a host of other high-ranking officials, including Acting Commissioner Daniel Werfel and Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George, who audited the tax-collecting agency for wasteful spending—most notably the $50,000 in video costs for said conference. But it was Fink who faced the heat from the committee, with Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) going so far as to note that he faced “potential liability for perjury” for his testimony.

In contrast to the ongoing investigation about whether the IRS’s tax exempt division targeted right-wing groups applying for 501(c)4 status, Thursday’s hearings focused on the allegations of wasteful spending by the IRS. It especially focused on the conference held in Anaheim, California that had been the subject of a report by George that was released Tuesday. The report raised serious questions about the $4.1 million conference, where IRS officials got suite upgrades and all attendees got tchotchkes like plastic squirting fish, and harkened back to a 2012 scandal about excessive spending at a conference by the General Services Administration (GSA).

There was bipartisan outrage about excessive IRS spending. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member on the committee, raged about the video, calling it “ridiculous” and of “no redeeming value,” while Congressman Scott DeJarlais (R-TN) was dumbfounded that there was no way to track whether the government workers at the conference actually attended the training sessions.  The worst punishment that Fink took was when Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz repeatedly pressed him on when he knew that there was something wrong about the conference. Fink replied that it was only when he knew the full cost but was left sputtering when Chaffetz pointed out that he had signed off on the  budget long before the conference was held.

But for all the sturm und drang, the hearing is not likely to lead to any reform in IRS spending—that’s already happened. As Werfel testified, travel and training expenses at the IRS have dropped 80 percent since 2010 with overall spending on conferences and training plummeting from over $37 million in 2010 to under $5 million in 2012.  Many of the reforms in conference spending had been part of an executive order by President Obama in the aftermath of the GSA scandal. This was as much an audit of past failures as an expose of current dysfunction.

Still, the tough questioning of Fink and his repeated apologies for his role in the 2010 conference seemed to create a contrast with those involved in the 501(c)4 scandal. As Congressman Cummings noted “we watched [former head of the IRS tax-exempt division Lois] Lerner  plead the 5th, [former IRS Commissioner Doug] Shulman rope-a-doped and it was really rather insulting; you came and took some tough blows and were honest and laid it out as best you could.”  And, as new allegations surface that the investigations of Tea-Party groups were centrally directed, not simply the result of a handful of agents in the IRS’s Cincinnati office,  the need for answers becomes more pressing.