A U.S. senator is questioning whether the Treasury Department purposely misled Congress by concealing a history of excessive government spending on lavish employee conferences.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has asked a Treasury auditor to look into why the department told Coburn a year ago that it spent less than $500,000 on conferences over seven years when an investigation showed that the Internal Revenue Service, a Treasury agency that should have been included in that account, had actually spent about $50 million on such events in just two years, from 2010 to 2012.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Alastair Fitzpayne wrote to Coburn on May 25, 2012, acknowleding just five conferences between 2005 and 2012 that cost less than $459,000 combined.
"It appears that the response provided by the Treasury was inaccurate and incomplete," Coburn said in a letter sent this week to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. "It did not include any information regarding the Internal Revenue Service while we now understand IRS spent $50 million on conferences during this time period."
Coburn orginally requested in April 2012 that Treasury provide information about its conferences.
The two-page letter, addressed to then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, asked Treasury to provide "total cost of agency travel related to conferences" between 2010 and 2012 as well as information about the cost of Treasury officials' per diems, airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals. He set a May 15, 2012, deadline for the agency to respond.
Ten days after the deadline passed, he received a response that showed that just five conferences were held.
Treasury assured Coburn money was not being wasted on conferences anywhere within the Treasury Department, which includes including the IRS, the U.S. Mint, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and eight other bureaus.
"As the agency responsible for managing the finances of the federal government, we are keenly aware of the need to safeguard limited taxpayer resources," FItzpayne wrote to Coburn. "As a department, we have taken care to be judicious in expenditures on travel and meetings."
Fitzpayne provided a short list of conferences between 2005 and 2010, and aides said Coburn's office was left to assume that the response included all the dates he'd requested and all the bureaus within the department. But a new audit released Tuesday shows that the IRS alone had spent $50 million in just two years for extravagant conferences that included a $17,000 motivational speaker who paints portraits while talking.
"That was the expectation when we sent the letter and the understanding when we received Treasury's response," a Coburn aide told The Washington Examiner.
The most expensive conference Treasury reported to Coburn was a June 2008 event in Annapolis, Md., for 300 employees that cost $391,000. Costs of the other four conferences ranged from $2,000 to $49,000. The audit, however, showed that the IRS had spent nearly $4.1 million on a single conference in California.
Coburn said in his letter to Lew that he is referring the matter to the Treasury inspector general "to review why the IRS conference data was omitted from the response."
A Treasury spokesman told The Examiner that the department has received Coburn's latest letter "and will respond to him directly."