WASHINGTON — A top IRS official who portrayed “Spock” in a video that premiered during a $4 million conference under investigation by the inspector general apologized to a House committee Thursday for his portrayal in the skit but defended the event.
Faris Fink, who received a bonus and was promoted to head the division after the 2010 conference near Disneyland in California, said he supported the event and individual speakers, including a painter who charged the government $17,000 to give a leadership lecture while composing a portrait of Bono.
But after the Star Trek video was shown during the hearing Fink as Spock warning that “anarchy is spreading across the planet like a virus,” he conceded that taxpayer dollars were poorly spent.
“Frankly it’s embarrassing and I apologize,” Fink said. “I regret the fact (the videos) were made.”
But Fink’s regrets fell on deaf ears.
“I find your apology today hallow,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “It’s not enough.”
Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George told the panel that the IRS spent $40 million for 225 conferences during a period from 2010 to 2012 including the lavish affair in Anaheim, Calif. for 2,600 IRS employees.
However, investigators estimated only 90 percent of the costs were accounted for because IRS employees did not file the correct paperwork to identify this one conference from hundreds of others held. Costs are now expected to climb to $5 million for the training conference held near Disneyland.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, described the agency’s spending practices as “maliciously self-indulgent” and accused officials of tax evasion.
Two employees have been suspended for accepting gifts and free food and then failing to claim the presents on tax forms.
Brightly colored plastic toys called Fish squirts were part of the swag bag gifts that totaled $64,000.
Fink said the purchase was “absolutely inappropriate” but did not explain how the plastic pool and bath toys were used in a workshop.
“I would say the IRS has taken government arrogance and spending to an incredible level,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).
More than 100 rooms were upgraded to luxury suites, and when not attending sessions that cost $135,000 for speakers, some IRS employees went to Disneyland.
The Star Trek performance and a second video showing IRS employees learning a line dance cost $50,000 to produce, and was a particular irritant to lawmakers.
“It’s not only a parody of the TV show, but a parody of what many people think of federal workers,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) ranking committee member.
“I swear to God, I have looked at that video over and over again, and I swear I do not see the redeeming value in it,” Cummings said.
Fink initially insisted he did not know how much the conference cost and did not attend briefings prior to the event revealing the expenses.
After an inspector’s general official contradicted his testimony and said Fink signed off on a document showing he had attended a briefing where the cost was revealed, lawmakers reminded Fink he was testifying under oath and to reconsider his statement.
Fink revised his statement and confessed he was aware of the cost before the event.
The IRS has agreed to adopt several recommendations from the inspector’s office to ensure the excessive spending is not repeated at future conferences, but some lawmakers expressed little confidence in the solution.
“We can adopt all the recommendations you can conceive of, but it strikes me as a cultural, systemic, character, and moral issue,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “They sent 25 employees on a scouting trip to see if the hotel was okay. That’s not going to be fixed with training. Replacement might.”
Daniel Werfel acting IRS commissioner, told lawmakers the elaborate conference was endemic of excessive spending the agency conducts at the end of fiscal years in order to get an increase in funding for the next year.
“This is an agency that is just out of control,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).