That IRS Conference in Anaheim Isn’t Really the Scandal Everyone Thinks It Is

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The hot news today is the scandalous revelation that the IRS spent $4.1 million on an employee conference in Anaheim a few years back. Here’s a typical description:

Some 2,600 Internal Revenue Service managers gathered in Anaheim, Calif., in August 2010 were treated to $50,000 worth of comic videos and $135,000 worth of guest speakers, one of whom collected $17,000 to paint portraits of famous personages on stage, an audit found….Some $64,000 was spent on giveaway swag for all attendees, including thousands of logo-emblazoned “brief bags” and spiral journals, 800 lanyards, 75 travel mugs and 75 picture frame/clocks, and various other customized knickknacks such as pens, can coolers and Post-It notes.

Can we talk? Yes, the Inspector General found that the event planners didn’t always follow proper procedures, and I’m painfully aware that stuff like this often sounds dumb when you read about it after the fact. What’s more, a few of the items in the IG report sound genuinely dodgy. But honestly, there’s less here than meets the eye. The IG found that the IRS “did not use available internal personnel to assist in searching for the most cost-effective location as required,” and I assume that’s true. But you know what? There are surprisingly few places where you can hold a conference for 2,600 people. Just ask anyone who’s ever done one of these things. And in the end, the total cost ended up at about $1,600 per person for a three-day conference. That’s….not bad, actually. Again, just ask anyone who’s ever done one of these things.

And for what it’s worth, can I add that every single private company in the country has held more of these kinds of conferences than you can count? Yes, there’s a Dilbertish case to be made that they’re stupid and a waste of time. I was always fairly cynical about them, myself. But trust me: the rock-jawed titans of the private sector do all this stuff and more every single year. You might think it’s dumb, but they all seem to think it’s worthwhile. Is it any surprise that IRS management figured it was worthwhile too?

The Obama administration cracked down on this stuff long ago, and there’s very little of it still being done. That’s probably good optics, but it’s less clear that it’s good management. After all, it’s not as if getting everyone together once a year for some face time is an obviously stupid thing to do. Either way, though, let’s keep this in perspective. I know that’s hard because this stuff is such an easy target, and I know that defending it is a lose-lose proposition. But just talk to some of your friends who work for large corporations. They’ll tell you. Not only is this kind of conference nothing out of the ordinary, but by private sector standards it sounds positively restrained. As scandals go, this is pretty weak tea.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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