By Chris Carroll
WASHINGTON — An Ooltewah Republican’s accountability bill is getting traction as the Internal Revenue Service faces fresh opposition to its spending on conferences and retreats.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said his bill, known as the ACCOUNT Act, would add oversight and transparency to spending across all Washington agencies.
“The buck should stop with the agency head,” Fleischmann said in an interview Tuesday. “He should be the first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse.”
On Tuesday, an inspector general’s report showed the IRS — already reeling from a scandal involving its targeting of conservative groups — spent $50 million on 225 conferences between 2010 and 2012.
That included a $4.1 million jaunt to Anaheim, Calif., where 2,609 managers enjoyed stays at the Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton hotels. Some attendees received Los Angeles Angels tickets and slept in $3,500-per-night “presidential suites.” Two deputy IRS commissioners approved the 2010 trip in advance.
Fleischmann doesn’t pretend his bill would abolish expensive conferences altogether. But he hopes to provide a sharper tool for watchdog lawmakers and constituents interested in curbing public spending.
“The public should be able to see all this,” he said. “It is transparent.”
Fleischmann’s ACCOUNT Act would require agency heads — not their deputies — to pre-approve many off-site conferences. The legislation would compel each agency to promptly post on its website a summary of each conference and its cost. Finally, agencies would have to submit to Congress a detailed annual report of all conferences, expenses and activities.
Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese scoffed at the congressman’s calls for open government. Last week Fleischmann asked a Nashville judge to seal from public view 1,800 pages of polling research and campaign strategy memos he has agreed to file in an ongoing lawsuit.
“Chuck Fleischmann wants transparency for everyone but himself,” Puttbrese said. “He parades around like an accountability hawk, but he rejects the same treatment for his campaigns and personal life.”
Fleischmann dismissed Puttbrese’s comparison as “apples and oranges” and declined to comment on pending litigation.
Instead, Fleischmann preferred to focus on details from the IRS probe: Money that bankrolled the production of videos of IRS staffers doing the “Cupid Shuffle” — a popular dance — was supposed to pay for new hires, according to the report. Other conference perks included a Star Trek parody video.
The IRS told investigators the videos cost $50,000, but Tuesday’s report said the tax enforcement agency could not substantiate its figures with documentation.
Fleischmann originally introduced the ACCOUNT Act last year amid reports the General Services Administration spent more than $800,000 on a four-day conference in Las Vegas that included a mind reader and a circus clown. The bill stalled in committee.
Around the same time, the Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines that said agency heads annually should post information about conferences costing more than $100,000 on their websites.
Fleischmann’s bill calls for online disclosure of conferences costing more than $25,000 no fewer than 30 days after their conclusion.
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan described Fleischmann’s bill as “a great idea.” A high-ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Knoxville Republican said the ACCOUNT Act will be part of “any conversation” about conference restrictions.
Not everyone’s on board, though.
Fleischmann’s bill exempts retreats for the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and conferences that are “classified or related to national security.”
“The bill’s [armed forces] exemption is strange,” said Russell Rumbaugh, an official at the Washington-based Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research institution that monitors defense spending. “The Pentagon has already dramatically curtailed conferences because of the reduced spending forced by the lack of a budget deal, showing Congress is already willing to risk cutting these conferences.”