By Bernie Becker - 06/06/13 02:26 PM EDT
Faris Fink, the IRS official who played Spock in the agency’s much-maligned “Star Trek” parody, apologized for an over-the-top 2010 conference, saying those sorts of expenses wouldn’t be racked up now.
Fink said the “Star Trek” parody was supposed to be a funny way to open the conference in Anaheim, Calif. Instead, he acknowledged, it was “embarrassing” and “not appropriate.”
“In hindsight, many of the expenses that were incurred at the 2010 conference should have been more closely scrutinized or not incurred at all,” said Fink, the commissioner of the division for small businesses and the self-employed, which held the conference. “We would not hold this same type of meeting today.”
The Anaheim conference cost $4.1 million and featured room upgrades, a slew of paid outside speakers and a separate video showing IRS staffers doing the “Cupid Shuffle.”
“I regret the fact they were made,” Fink, an IRS staffer for more than three decades, said about both videos.
The Treasury audit that outlined the Anaheim conference’s expenses found that the IRS spent almost $50 million in all between 2010 and 2012 on conferences, and that the Anaheim conference cost more than $1,500 per IRS attendee.
Fink said the conference was used to train some 2,600 employees, as his division was bringing in many new employees who also faced new security threats. He also stressed that, while the costs of the conference were regrettable, they were also in line with IRS practices at that time.
Danny Werfel, the acting IRS commissioner, added in his prepared testimony for Thursday’s hearing that paid speakers are no longer used at agency conferences, and that oversight over the IRS’s in-house video studio has been tightened.
The IRS has already placed two staffers – both of whom work on healthcare implementation – on administrative leave since Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration released the audit on Tuesday.
IRS and Treasury officials have also noted that the agency’s travel and training costs have dropped dramatically since 2010.
The Thursday hearing comes as lawmakers – and the Justice Department, for that matter – continue to investigate the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
At Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers said they were pleased to see that Fink was contrite about the conference spending – something they saw as a stark contrast to recent testimony from current and former IRS officials about the targeting of conservative groups.
Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of that controversy, invoked the Fifth Amendment before the Oversight panel two weeks ago. Lawmakers have also consistently expressed frustration at what they saw as the evasive testimony of the former commissioner, Doug Shulman.
“We watched Ms. Lerner come and plead the Fifth. Shulman came and basically rope a doped. And it was really rather insulting to us what Mr. Shulman did,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat at the Oversight panel. “But you came and took some tough blows, and you were honest, and you laid it out as best you could.”
“Your attitude has been appropriate,” added Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Still, lawmakers also expressed plenty of anger about the IRS’s conference practices, which House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called “at best, maliciously self-indulgent.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) added that the conference occurred as the economy was struggling to recover, and as public employees in his home state were facing furloughs.
Under questioning from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Fink also acknowledged that he had signed off on a request for the Anaheim conference that estimated its cost at $4.3 million. Fink had previously told Chaffetz that he did not know the conference's price tag at the time it was held, and only found out much later.
For his part, Issa accused the IRS of being guilty of a double standard – allowing behavior from themselves that they wouldn’t condone for regular taxpayers.
“Saying you don’t know doesn’t give you an out as a taxpayer,” Issa said “It shouldn’t give the IRS an out when they’re using taxpayer money.”
But Issa also said that he didn’t want to use the conference expenses to tar all federal employees, even after previous investigations have found lavish conferences at other agencies like the General Services Administration.
“The federal workers around the country should be appalled that here were two standards – one for some, and one for the rest,” Issa said.
Cummings became particularly angry about the “Star Trek” parody, which he said he was even watching at 3 a.m. to search for redeeming value.
“I could not get there,” Cummings said.
The Maryland Democrat added that the parody, produced for approximately $50,000, cost more than many of his Baltimore constituents make in a year. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) added that the spoof was “an insult to the memory of Star Trek” and that “I could do a better Captain Kirk.”
“Mr. Fink, the money that was spent on that – that's my money,” Cummings said. “That's the lady who got the early bus this morning. That's her money.”
Cummings also expressed concern that the IRS conference budget increased sharply late in the Bush administration, as the economy was heading into recession. It would be “legislative malpractice” for the panel to not look into that further, the ranking member insisted.
--This report was updatec at 1:34 p.m.