Tax agency officials get favors at $4M conference

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WASHINGTON (AP)

Already under siege, the U.S. government’s tax collection agency was criticized by a government watchdog Tuesday for a $4.1 million training conference featuring luxury rooms and free drinks, even as conservative figures told Congress they had been abused for years as they sought tax-exempt status.

(AP)

A total of 132 agency officials received room upgrades at the 2010 conference in Anaheim, California, 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. Without the upgrades, the agency IRS could have negotiated a lower room rate, as required by agency procedures.

The inspector general’s report was surfacing as the tax agency came under fire again in connection with its targeting of conservative groups during the 2010 and 2012 elections. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the inspector’s report ahead of its release.

In all, the agency, known as the Internal Revenue Service, 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.

Republicans are using controversies such as the tax agency scandal as an opportunity to derail President Barrack Obama’s second-term agenda. He has also been dogged by new questions about the deadly attack of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya and controversy over the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records.

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel has called the training conferences “an unfortunate vestige from a prior era.” Werfel took over the agency about two weeks ago, after 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.

The testimony of the tea party and other conservative organizations before the House Ways and Means Committee was the first time groups complaining about the IRS’s treatment have appeared directly before lawmakers since the IRS revealed the problem – and apologized for it – last month. They talked about applications for tax-exempt status that took three years for approval – or in some cases haven’t yet been approved -and queries from the agency about the identity of their donors, video of meetings and whether speakers at such gatherings expressed political views.

“I’m a born-free American woman,” Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, tearfully told the committee, adding, “I’m telling my government, you’ve forgotten your place.”

Sue Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, an anti-abortion group, said the IRS asked them about “the content of our prayers.”

“As Christians, we know we needed to pray for better solutions for unplanned pregnancies,” she said.

The president of another group, the National Organization for Marriage, said the IRS publicly disclosed confidential information about donors. John Eastman said he thought the IRS’s release of that information was designed to intimidate contributors to the group – which opposes same-sex marriage – “to chill them from donating again.”

(Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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