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WI congressman wants better tracking of federal conference expenses

July 19, 2013
In The News

by M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — The days of $4 million training conferences and motivational employee dance videos at the Internal Revenue Service could be a thing of the past under a bill cosponsored by a Wisconsin congressman.

At least the IRS and federal agencies at large would have to do a lot better job of reporting their binge spending, according to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse.

Kind praised the introduction of the Transparency Requirements for Agency Conferences and Events Act, a bipartisan bill that Kind said will bring transparency, accountability and fiscal restraint to federal agency conferences.

The legislation’s acronym is TRACE, as in nearly $50 million of taxpayer funding disappearing without a trace between 2010 and 2012 — money the IRS spent on questionable conferences, according to a  scathing audit issued earlier this year.

Federal auditors found a division of the tax agency spent at least $4.1 million on a 2010 conference in Anaheim, Calif. The session, according to auditors, included a litany of “questionable expenses,” from wacky training videos to high-priced keynote speakers and six figure commissions for event planners to $64,000 in gifts and do-dads for IRS employees.

The TRACE Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., is designed to increase transparency of federal agencies by requiring a comprehensive report describing the costs associated with any proposed conference, retreat, seminar or other such event being organized by a federal agency, according to a statement by Kind’s office.

“Hopefully, by that alone it will bring a little more humility to these conference organizers,” Kind told Wisconsin Reporter.

In a statement issued Thursday, the congressman said the bill “addresses the commonsense expectation that taxpayers have of their government: federal employees should not waste taxpayer dollars on extravagant accommodations, unnecessary luxuries, or special perks when hosting or attending a conference. We need to allow agencies to get the training and information needed to do their jobs effectively, but there has to be some basic oversight to make sure that no money or time is being wasted on pursuits that have nothing to do with the agency’s core mission.”

The bill requires that agencies, 30 days before a conference begins, submit an itemized statement of the cost of attending or hosting the conference, the names of keynote speakers, a list of conference attendees, the conference location and itinerary, and a summary of the purposes and goals of the event, according to Kind.

The audit found the IRS had held about 225 conferences over the period at a cost of more than $49 million. That breaks down to nearly $218,000 per conference.

“And this spending on dancing lessons and comic routines is an irresponsible expenditure of taxpayer money,” Kind said, adding that his mentor,  former U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wisconsin, a crusader against government waste, would have given the IRS one of his Golden Fleece Awards.

The bill would “greatly reduce the overall likelihood of an agency hosting or sending employees to an unnecessary conference that serves no needed civic purpose,” the congressman said.

But there have been plenty of congressional efforts over the years to hold federal agencies more accountable for their expenditures, with varying degrees of success. Kind says he’s hopeful the TRACE Act will make a difference.

“When you hear reports of federal agencies abusing tax dollars and handing out bonuses in times of high budget deficits, that’s very problematic and hard for people back home to understand,” he said.

In response to Wisconsin Reporter’s request for comment, the IRS said it does not answer questions on pending legislation.

Kind said he and Paulsen are trying to round up support for the bill, which appears bound for the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“We’ve got to strike when the iron is hot,” he said.