Watchdog tells of IRS luxuries at conference

Jenny Beth Martin (from left), cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots, Jo Anne Livingston and Darcy Crisp, all of Atlanta, applaud Tuesday after House Ways and Means Committee member Aaron Schock, R-Ill. said the IRS had been discriminating.

Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — Already under siege, the Internal Revenue Service was cited by a government watchdog for a $4.1 million training conference featuring luxury rooms, even as conservative figures told Congress Tuesday 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.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.

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.

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 Barack 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.

The report issued last month said tea party groups were asked inappropriate questions about their donors, their political affiliations and their positions on political issues. The additional scrutiny delayed applications for an average of nearly two years, making it difficult for many of the groups to raise money.

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 anti-abortion group said it got about prayer meetings.

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.”

The leader of a small South Carolina tea party group said her organization first applied for tax-exempt status in 2010 — and is still waiting for the application to be processed.

“Nearly three years in waiting for an answer is totally unacceptable,” said Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party. “The IRS needs to be fully investigated and held accountable for its harassment and targeting of conservative groups.”