Treasury still stonewalling on cost of swanky IRS gatherings

More than two weeks after news that the Internal Revenue Service spent $49 million in public funds on expensive confabs between 2010 and 2012, Washington legislators are still trying to find out why the Treasury Department withheld these expenses from congressional investigators last year.

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn asked then-Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner in April 2012 for an accounting of all expenses for all conferences by all branches of the Treasury Department last year. In response, a Treasury assistant secretary provided Coburn with a spreadsheet showing a total of about $500,000 in conference costs.

This is $48.5 million short of the costs for IRS conferences alone that were revealed in a report [pdf] released in May by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

“We requested a complete list of conferences held by the IRS during Fiscal Years (FY) 2010 through 2012,” the inspector general’s office wrote. “Based on information provided to us, the IRS held 225 conferences during this period for a total estimated cost of approximately $49 million.”

Coburn asked the department to explain the discrepancy early this month. In response, Alastair M. Fitzpayne, the Treasury’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, indicated that the department had conflated Coburn’s request for information with another request made around the same time by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“During the same time period that we received your request, Treasury and the IRS received similar — but separate — requests from Chairman Issa,” Fitzpayne wrote on June 6. “Treasury did not include any IRS data in its submission to Chairman Issa because the IRS responded separately. We mirrored this approach in responding to your request, and we informed your staff by email that the data pertained only to Treasury Departmental Offices (which does not include the IRS). We recognize that this may not have been clear, and we apologize for any confusion.”

For this explanation to be plausible, it is necessary to assume the Treasury not only mixed up Issa’s request with Coburn’s but also ignored substantial differences in the two requests. Coburn asked for all expenses for all conferences, while Issa only requested information for conferences attended by more than 50 employees. Coburn also did not correspond separately with the IRS, as Issa apparently did.

Coburn responded Wednesday with a letter ridiculing Fitzpayne’s explanations.

“This ‘dog ate my homework’ response does not excuse the department from its responsibility to respond fully to all reasonable requests from Congress,” Coburn wrote in a response to current Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. “In fact, a response such as this raises questions about whether the department takes any Congressional inquiries seriously as it should.”

Coburn went on to point out other odd features in the Treasury’s response. “Treasury provided all of the policies and guidelines for the department including the IRS,” he wrote. “It is unclear why Treasury was able to provide information regarding the IRS for this part of the request, but did not include the actual data on the conferences.”