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Judge expresses regret for lavish Hawaii conference
A top federal judge said if he and his colleagues had known the economy was going to be this bad, they might not have picked an oceanfront resort and spa in Hawaii as the site for a big judicial conference this month.
“In hindsight, had we foreseen the nation’s current fiscal problems, we may have chosen a different site for this year’s conference,” wrote Alex Kozinski, chief judge for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California, in a letter to two Republican senators released Wednesday.
Documents made public Wednesday show that contract papers for the conference were prepared in October 2010, when the unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent.
Judge Kozinski did not back off plans to hold the upcoming judicial gathering for federal judges and court employees at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, an oceanfront hotel where the website invites prospective guests to “frolic,” “pamper” and “play.”
With the nation’s economic troubles and recent conference scandals at the U.S. General Services Administration, two Republican senators in May criticized the Hawaii conference.
Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, sent a letter seeking a host of details, including contracts, for the conference. While a judicial website said activities such as yoga, stand-up paddle-board lessons and dance would not use any government funds, the senators wrote in their letter that the program “reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”
In a recent letter to the senators, Judge Kozinski noted that canceling the conference at such a late date would result in “enormous penalties being paid to the hotel for lost business,” while attendees who had bought nonrefundable airline tickets also would be penalized.
“We continue to believe in the importance of the conference in furthering the education of the bench and bar, and in advancing circuit governance,” the judge wrote in a letter dated Aug. 3. “Much time and effort has gone into developing an outstanding program, which focuses on timely and relevant issues and features speakers and panelists who are preeminent in their fields.”
Mr. Sessions’ office released the letter, along with information about contracts, though receipts were not yet provided.
Among the details included in the document release was that in previous contracts, the circuit court had included a financial out, giving it the ability to cancel, as part of the agreement, though that didn’t happen in 2012, according to Mr. Session’s office. In addition, according to the information from Mr. Sessions’ office, the circuit did not provide any contract bids from other vendors.
The conference for the judges from nine Western states and two Pacific Island territories, as well as staff, is scheduled for Monday through Thursday next week.
The lawmakers’ concerns come amid ongoing scandals at the General Services Administration (GSA), which came under scrutiny after an audit revealed wasteful spending and frivolity at a 2010 conference in Las Vegas. That conference cost taxpayers more than $800,000. The GSA is facing investigations into more than 70 other conferences and awards ceremonies over the years, including a lavish one-day gathering in Crystal City costing more than a quarter-million dollars for hundreds of employees and another in Henderson, Nev., where dozens of employees in the GSA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs gathered for five days in September 2011 for an “intergovernmental relations conference.”
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