Treasury still stonewalling on cost of swanky IRS gatherings

Tim Cavanaugh | Contributor

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.”

In an email to The Daily Caller, a Coburn staffer raised other questions about the incomplete responses and pointed out that one of the most notorious IRS conferences — a 2010 conference in Anaheim, California that cost more than $4 million — didn’t show up in any of the department’s responses.

“Dr. Coburn asked for a full listing of all conferences that Treasury sent employees to,” Coburn’s office wrote to TheDC.  “Issa asked for all conferences with 50 or more overnight. They responded to both Dr. Coburn and Issa with 50 or more overnight.  IRS provided Issa 50 or more overnight separately. It isn’t clear whether Treasury is saying the Anaheim IRS conference is the only one over 50, or if they provided that information because we mentioned that conference.”

In response to phone and email questions, a Treasury spokesperson responded, “We have received the letter and are responding to the Senator directly.”

The hubbub over the IRS employees’ free spending of taxpayer money on luxurious getaways for themselves comes in the midst of a series of controversies for the federal tax collector. This spring, an inspector general’s report revealed that the IRS had been unlawfully targeting tea party and conservative nonprofits for abusive audits and delays of their applications for exemption. And the ongoing rollout of the 2010 “Affordable Care Act,” popularly known as Obamacare, has driven home the central role the IRS will play in controlling Americans’ financial and medical information while forcing them to buy private health insurance.

The cascading scandals and manifest decadence of the IRS have inspired many Americans, including Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, to call for the agency to be abolished.

Although the IRS has virtually unlimited power to audit Americans and enforce stiff financial and prison penalties, the formal enshrinement of a federal income tax is a relatively new development in American history. This year is the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, which eliminated constitutional limits on government seizure of private wealth.

In the period before 1913, the United States fought off two attempts at conquest by the then-dominant British Empire, won decisive victories in wars against Mexico and Spain, abolished slavery, and acquired all of the territory of the current United States, while maintaining a currency that steadily appreciated in value. Since 1913, the dollar has lost nearly 100 percent of its worth, income and wealth inequality have drastically increased and economic mobility has dwindled.

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