Lawmakers on Capitol Hill grilled an ashamed official with the Internal Revenue Service on Thursday about why he allowed the agency to wastefully spend taxpayer money on things like a Star Trek parody video and plastic squirting fish during a 2010 conference for employees.
During the hearing before the House Oversight Committee, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa played a clip from the Star Trek video. The clip showed one of the witnesses, IRS official Faris Fink, starring in the role of Mr. Spock.
“What were you thinking?” Issa asked Fink, who reportedly has been placed on administrative leave. “Were you thinking this will never be seen? Or were you thinking how will this look when it is seen?”
“The fact of the matter is it’s embarrassing,” said Fink, the commissioner of small business and self-employed division at the IRS. “And I apologize.”
Thursday’s hearing came after the agency’s inspector general, J. Russell George, released a report detailing $4 million spent at an August 2010 IRS conference for 2,600 people in Anaheim, Calif.
Among the eyebrow-raising parts of the report: The IRS spent more than $50,187 making videos for the conference, including a spoof of Stark Trek and another showing employees learning the “Cupid Shuffle” line dance.
Ranking Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said Thursday he was up late Wednesday night watching the videos, but still cannot figure out the “redeeming value” of them.
On Thursday, Fink said those videos were “well-intentioned” and meant to use “humor” to start and end the conference.
“They would not occur today based upon all the guidelines that exist,” Fink said. “And frankly, they were not appropriate at that time either.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on Thursday came after the treasury inspector general for tax administration released a report on excessive conference spending by the IRS.
The committee will continue hearing testimony from the inspector general and a top deputy, as well as acting IRS Commissioner Daniel Werfel.
Florida Republican Rep. John Mica asked about the report that the IRS spent $64,000 on plastic squirting fish.
Fink said he didn’t see the swag at the conference.
“Maybe I could offer a reward,” Mica said. “I’d love to see one of the squirting fish. I’m sure that some of the taxpayers, the people that went to work on that early bus this morning out of Baltimore or out of my district in central Florida, love to know that the federal government spent $64,000 on squirting fish for federal employees at a conference.”
Asked if that was an appropriate, Fink replied, “There were expenses that were incurred at that conference, for that conference, that were absolutely inappropriate. That would be one of those expenses.”
Fink was also asked during the early part of the hearing why the IRS paid more than $30,000 on hotel rooms for 45 local employees who could have stayed at home. He was also asked why the agency paid a per-diem charge for breakfasts despite the employees being provided a free breakfast in the mornings.
The hearings will continue later Thursday after a brief recess for lawmakers to vote