In an April 30 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, Sen. Chuck Grassley said there was no reason for 19 IRS employees to attend at three-day conference in Miami Beach. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
On the heels of the General Service Administration's Las Vegas conference scandal, lawmakers are stepping up scrutiny of federal conferences.
Last week, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the Internal Revenue Service to explain why it sent 19 employees to a three-day conference in Miami Beach last week. The annual conference, called OffshoreAlert, provides tax and audit-related updates to representatives of offshore financial centers, which are used by corporations and the wealthy to protect financial holdings.
There was no reason for 19 IRS employees to attend, Grassley said in an April 30 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman. Grassley is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former chairman of the Finance Committee.
"In a challenging fiscal time, this is not the best use of IRS resources," Grassley said.
Grassley was particularly irked that Stephen Whitlock, director of the IRS Whistleblower Program, was participating in the conference. Whitlock oversees an office that Grassley created in 2006 that pays people to report on others who fail to pay their taxes. If IRS uses information provided by a whistleblower, it can award the whistleblower up to 30 percent of what it collects.
But a Government Accountability Office report last year found that the office is way behind in processing those whistleblower claims. As of April 2011, two-thirds of all whistleblower claims submitted in the first two years of the program — 2007 and 2008 — were still being processed, the GAO said.
"The lack of progress is demoralizing whistleblowers so that I am now concerned that whistleblowers will stop coming forward," Grassley said in the letter.
Grassley asked the whistleblower office to provide a list of the employees who attended the conference, an explanation of who authorized the travel and the justification for sending each person, and a list of expenses, including conference fees, travel, accommodations and per diem expenses. He also asked that Whitlock's travel be restricted and that IRS provide a detailed list of Whitlock's travel over the last three years, including justifications and expense summaries.
The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration has also come under fire for a solicitation to industry for a speaker to train officials on "translating magic and principles of the psychology of magic, magic tools, techniques and experiences into a method of teaching leadership" for an upcoming conference, according to Government Executive. NOAA later withdrew the request.
Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, called on NOAA to halt all spending associated with the conference.