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Taxpayers foot the bill for Justice Department’s $16 muffins

Report hits ‘extravagant’ costs

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Justice Department and several of its agencies engaged in "extravagant and wasteful" spending on food, beverages and event planning for law enforcement conferences, including paying $16 each for muffins, $76 per person for lunch and more than $8 for a cup of coffee, according to an audit released Tuesday by the department's Office of Inspector General.

At one conference, a workshop on enhancing judicial skills, participants were served snacks of Cracker Jack, popcorn and candy during a break, costing $32 a person, and also were provided a "deluxe" ice cream assortment that cost $10 per person. The 166 people attending a separate conference of U.S. attorneys were fed beef Wellington appetizers at $7.32 per serving.

"Some conferences featured costly meals, refreshments and themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending," said acting Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar. The report says the department "did not adequately attempt to minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines."

The audit also is critical of money the Justice Department spent on event planners for some of the conferences, describing as an "unallowable cost" the hiring of a consultant in Anchorage, Alaska, to act as the liaison for a conference being held at a hotel in Palm Springs, Calif.

Because the consultant was based in Anchorage, the audit says, he had to travel the 2,400 miles to Palm Springs at least three times and subsequently billed the department $3,454 in travel costs. The audit also criticizes the $29,000 cost of travel, lodging and food and beverages for a face-to-face meeting in Palm Springs a year before the conference with members of the consultant's firm. It describes that as "unreasonable."

The audit also is critical of two Justice Department agencies - the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) - for spending $600,000 in grant funds for event-planning services for five conferences without demonstrating that the firms offered the most cost-effective services.

The inquiry specifically focused on taxpayer expenditures by the Justice Department at 10 of 1,832 conferences it hosted or participated in during fiscal 2008 and 2009. Those 10 conferences represented $4.4 million of the $121 million Justice spent on conferences during that time. The audit says the cost of food and beverages at the 10 conferences was nearly $490,000, or 11 percent of the total estimated cost of the events.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, was critical Tuesday of the expenditures.

"$16 muffins and $600,000 for event-planning services are what make Americans cynical about government and why they are demanding change," Mr. Grassley emailed in response to a Times inquiry. "The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing. People are outraged, and rightly so.

"The Inspector General's Office just gave a blueprint for the first cuts that should be made by the super committee," he said, referring to the congressional panel charged this year with finding more than $1 trillion in deficit cuts.

The report was a follow-up to a 2007 audit that examined 10 other Justice Department conferences and found few internal controls to limit extravagant expenses such as one conference that featured a luncheon for 120 that cost $53 per person and a $60,000 reception that included platters of Swedish meatballs at a cost of nearly $5 each.

In response to that audit, the Justice Department instituted new guidelines in April 2008 with meal and refreshment cost limits. However, the latest report says department agencies "did not adequately attempt to minimize conference costs as required" by the guidelines. In some cases, it says, the agencies were able to circumvent the limits because the rules did not to apply to conferences planned on cooperative agreements.

Investigators from the Inspector General's Office said the lack of documentation justifying the costs in fiscal 2008 and 2009 "indicated that not all sponsors were seriously questioning the need for expensive meals and refreshments at their events."

Among the inspector general's findings:

• At the February 2008 U.S. attorneys national conference, 84 officials attended a dinner with Attorney General Michael Mukasey at a cost $5,431, or almost $65 per person, after a reception where they had the pricey beef Wellington appetizers. The next day, 118 participants attended a dinner at the Mount Vernon Inn south of Alexandria that featured a choice of entrees, including crusted red snapper, stuffed chicken breast or beef medallions, along with hors d'oeuvres, side dishes and salads. The dinner cost $58 per person.

• The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), which paid the $32-per-person cost for the Cracker Jack and popcorn snacks, also spent $76 a person for a "Mission Dolores" lunch for the 65 attendees at a workshop in San Francisco. The OVW also paid $10 a person for "deluxe" ice cream and spent $1.03 per ounce for coffee and tea.

• The Executive Office for Immigration Review paid for the $16 muffins, all 250 of them, as well as $9.60 apiece for 300 brownies and cookies, for its August 2009 conference in Washington, D.C.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said most of the conferences that were the subject of the inspector general's report were planned and held during the George W. Bush administration, when there were no strict limits on food and beverage costs for cooperative agreements.

"We agree that excessive spending of the types identified in the OIG report should not occur," said Gina Talamona, who added that steps have been taken "to ensure that these problems do not occur again." She said the department recently issued guidance to curtail nonessential spending, and the overall conference spending was reduced in the first six months of fiscal 2011.

According to the inspector general's report, 4 of the 10 conferences examined occurred during the Obama administration.

In May 2009, Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden sent a memo to all department heads saying that as the department worked to accomplish its mission, "We must also make certain we do so with a focus on accountability and transparency to the American taxpayers." He told the department heads to ensure that resources were used in the most advantageous and responsible manner.

"I want to emphasize the need to maximize our financial resources, ensure we are prudent in our spending and avoid the fact or appearance of extravagant spending, especially during these challenging financial times," he said.

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