‘Mr. Spock’ In IRS Star Trek Video Apologizes For Mistake
WASHINGTON, D.C. — An Internal Revenue Service official involved in a 2010 conference cited for wasteful spending said Thursday no rules were broken and no fraud occurred, though he acknowledged that “in hindsight,” much of the spending should have been more closely monitored or never should have happened.
“It’s embarrassing, and I apologize,” said Faris Fink, the IRS official who portrayed the Mr. Spock character in a training video for the conference that parodied the television show “Star Trek.”
Fink told a congressional hearing that new federal regulations would prevent such a video and conference from occurring today. However, he said planners “followed IRS and government procedures that were in place at the time.”
He also noted that an inspector general’s audit that revealed high hotel costs and other wasteful spending in the $4.1 million cost of the conference found no fraud occurred.
“In hindsight, many of the expenses that were incurred at the 2010 conference should be been more closely scrutinized or not incurred at all,” said Fink, a 32-year IRS veteran.
His testimony under oath to the House Oversight Committee followed fierce criticism from the panel’s top Republican and Democrat.
GOP Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa of California called the waste by the agency that collects taxes from the public “maliciously self-indulgent.”
He noted that in some cases, IRS workers who received employee benefits from the conference and failed to file W-2 forms for the income means that “the IRS effectively was guilty of tax evasion.”
Ranking Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland berated Fink for wasting the money of people who earn less in a year than the cost of the “Star Trek” parody video.
Insisting he found “no redeeming value” from the video, Cummings told Fink that “the money that was spent on that, that’s my money.”
Citing examples of working people in his neighborhood, such as a hotel cleaning woman he saw at the bus stop Thursday morning, Cummings angrily said: “That is her money. The one who makes $35,000, that’s her. The gentleman up the street from me who makes $45,000 hauling trash. That’s their money and so, it was wasted.”
Thursday’s hearing was the seventh in recent weeks on controversies at the IRS. The others focused mostly on the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status that was uncovered in a separate inspector general’s audit made public last month.
Despite the public displays of outrage by legislators, Issa and Cummings conceded that such wasteful IRS spending on conferences and travel no longer occurred due to government reforms.
“It’s not a new occurrence and many of these things may not be happening today,” Issa said, while Cummings credited both the committee and the Obama administration for taking effective action in response to a similar spending scandal involving the General Services Administration that was uncovered in 2011.
On Wednesday, the IRS announced it has placed two employees on administrative leave in connection with the Anaheim, California, conference in 2010.
The employees were not identified in a statement from the new IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel, nor were the exact circumstances of their alleged wrongdoing detailed.
The incident involved a party inside a private suite at a hotel in Anaheim, the statement said. Food was allegedly provided free of charge, a violation of standards.
In his report on the conference spending made public Tuesday, Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George said the IRS spent taxpayer dollars on everything from event planners’ commissions to speakers’ fees to guest prizes to parody videos.
“Questionable expenses” comprised much of the budget, according to George’s report. It noted that $3.2 million to pay for the conference expenses came from unused funds allocated for hiring.
The August 2010 conference, held by the Small Business/Self-Employed division, had 2,600 attendees at three hotels in Anaheim.
While outrage over the wasteful spending was bipartisan, both sides sought to score political points on Thursday.
Issa, a leading GOP messenger in efforts to depict the Obama administration as government gone wild, complained of a “culture without whistleblowers” in the federal government and referred specifically to the targeting scandal his panel also is investigating.
He wondered out loud how many IRS workers involved in the improper targeting could have benefited from better training and more staff paid for by the money spent instead on the Anaheim conference.
Cummings, meanwhile, noted that IRS spending on conferences doubled during the final years of the Bush administration, when the nation headed into recession.
“It would be legislative malpractice if we don’t figure out what happened there,” he said.
CNN’s Dana Bash and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.
By Tom Cohen
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