By Bob Cusack - 06/26/13 09:00 AM EDT
The IRS held a 2008 conference in Atlanta that included an open bar, elaborate hors d’oeuvres and a video of agency employees dressed as Olympic athletes with makeshift torches.
Two people who attended the three-day event put on by IRS’s Office of Chief Counsel described it as “very lavish” and “over the top.” The agency said Tuesday it cost taxpayers about $2.4 million.
The “grand finale” of the conference, held during President George W. Bush’s administration, was an awards dinner at the Georgia Aquarium catered by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, according to an IRS document provided to The Hill.
The two sources who spoke to The Hill did so on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retribution if their names became public. One official still works for the IRS while the other has since left the agency.
“I had not been to anything like that, certainly not put on by the federal government,” said one of the sources. “It was first rate, all the way.”
The other source said, “It was very lavish … the training courses themselves were helpful and informative, but the culture of excess permeated this [conference], including the opening video, the opening-night cocktail and hors d’ouevres reception.”
The source added that the 1,550 attorneys, paralegals and other attendees were given a leather portfolio as a keepsake.
The tax agency is also facing criticism for its targeting of Tea Party groups and news earlier this month that it spent more than $4 million on a 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif. IRS acting chief Danny Werfel has called the Anaheim event “an unfortunate vestige from a prior era.”
In a statement to The Hill, the agency said, “The size and details of [the] 2008 conference reflect a different era at the IRS. While there were legitimate reasons for holding the meeting, a number of the expenses associated with it would not occur today under our tough new guidelines.”
People who witnessed the short video in Atlanta say it featured IRS lawyers in different parts of the country holding Olympics-like torches and wearing athletic gear. The video footage was later culled and edited.
IRS attorneys embraced the Olympics theme for the 2008 conference, which took place a dozen years after Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games.
The video, titled, “One Office,” was an attempt to foster unity among IRS attorneys, according to a handful of people interviewed by The Hill.
Some attendees strongly defended the gathering, which provided Continuing Legal Education (CLE) to IRS attorneys.
David Canale of Ernst & Young said it allowed all of the IRS chief counsels across the nation to get together for the first time. It was “well organized” and “a typical government conference,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say it was lavish by any means,” added Canale, who did not see the video.
Many senior IRS officials spoke at the 2008 conference that spanned Aug. 12-14, including then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman and Sarah Ingram, who is now in charge of the agency’s office that is implementing ObamaCare.
Donald Korb, who was the IRS chief counsel in 2008, said, “There is no mystery here. It’s really simple. We took the Chief Counsel CLE training budget for the entire year for all of the different Chief Counsel functions and took advantage of the cost savings [and] economy of scale of having one large CLE as opposed to several smaller ones by doing it all in one place at one time in Atlanta.
“Who would hold a so-called ‘lavish’ event in Atlanta in the middle of August? In any event, the Congress itself had approved the spending of these funds for this purpose since the money for CLE training for our lawyers — required in many states in order for them to be able to maintain their licenses to practice law — was included as part of Chief Counsel’s annual budget.”
Jerry Cohen, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Atlanta, said, “It was a great meeting,” adding that it was needed to build camaraderie among the government tax lawyers.
He added, “Nowadays, you wouldn’t” hold such a conference “because [the IRS] got burned.”
Like Canale, Cohen said he didn’t see the torch video.
Many people who attended the conference, which took place at the Marriot Marquis, didn’t want to talk about it. More than a dozen people didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
While there was a difference of opinion on whether the government paid too much for the conference, everyone interviewed by The Hill praised the content of the topics discussed, which ranged from international financial reporting standards to discovery to the effective use of email.
There was also a wonky Family-Feud-like game played that asked questions such as: “Name your favorite IRC code section” and “What is the average age of a Chief Counsel upon taking office?”
The IRS pointed out Tuesday that the 2008 conference offered 126 hours of CLE-related instruction and more than 1,200 attorneys earned CLE credit, which is “a necessary step for their legal credentials.”
The agency also stressed the conference in Atlanta would not occur today: “Sweeping new spending restrictions have been put in place at the IRS; travel and training expenses have dropped more than 80 percent since 2010; and similar large-scale meetings did not take place in 2011, 2012 or 2013.”