Employees at the Internal Revenue Service are under the gun this week after a congressional hearing brought to light details from an internal audit quietly released six months ago.

A November 2000 audit by the Treasury Department's Inspector General's Office estimated that "of the 16,275 hours of transmission time used to request and receive Web site data during our seven-day review period, 8,250 hours (51 percent) were for non-business reasons."

Non-business Internet use by IRS employees included conducting personal financial transactions, gambling, visiting chat rooms and viewing porn sites.

"As a result, the IRS is losing productivity, creating unnecessary demand on its telecommunications capacity, and could be fostering a hostile work environment by allowing sexually-explicit material into the workplace via the Internet," the audit concluded.

Bob Wenzel, deputy commissioner for the IRS, responded at the time of the audit, saying management would focus on adding commercially available blocking software, educating employees about Treasury rules on productivity and performing random checks on usage.

However, Wenzel said, "tracking Internet usage and determining if the usage is for business or personal use is a very difficult task."  He also said that the IRS may soon adopt a more flexible policy to accommodate limited personal Internet use by employees.

A spokesman for the IRS Thursday could not say whether the IRS has begun making changes to reduce employees' personal Internet use.

Word about the audit came during an oversight hearing in the Senate Finance Committee this week, when the chairman of the committee, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), asked whether IRS management had cracked down on personal use of the Internet by employees at the IRS.

Grassley's questions came at a particularly tough time for the IRS, which is trying to combat a poor public image and is required to report to Congress under the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998.

At this week's hearing, Williams said that during the 2001 filing season, the IRS did not perform as well as it could have.  Reviewers who visited IRS walk-in sites found that they were given incorrect information 49 percent of the time and insufficient information 24 percent of the time.  In seven out of 90 cases, the reviewers were refused services altogether.

"During a current review of the toll-free telephone system over a four-day period, our reviewers were unable to talk with an IRS assister 37 percent of the time and, when we did reach an assister, we did not receive the service requested 47 percent of the time," Williams added. 

Grassley questioned whether the poor service could be due to the fact IRS employees were goofing off.

"Are taxpayers sitting on hold while IRS employees are surfing the Internet instead of answering the phone? I hope not," Grassley said.

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