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DOJ spent $58 million on conferences last year, prompting Senate inquiry

- Washington Guardian - Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Justice Department spent a whopping $58.7 million last year to send its employees to conferences around the world, a jet-setting junket machine that has a key senator questioning the agency's commitment to frugality in an era of sequester budget cuts.

The department's expenditures included nearly $500,000 for 30 employees to attend a conference in Indonesia, nearly $200,000 for just four workers to attend a seminar in Senegal, and more than $100,000 on a summit in the Northern Mariana Islands that didn't involve a single department attendee, according to an internal report produced by the department this month.

Justice officials defend the spending, saying such conferences provide vital training and outreach to global law enforcement. "We believe that conferences are often the best method of delivering operational training to federal, state, and local law enforcement and justice professionals and grantee organizations. This training plays an important role in enhancing the effectiveness of their efforts," officials said in a preamble to their report.

The officials noted the 2012 expenditures on junkets were $7 million less than 2011, and down from a record high of $90 million in 2010. Justice "recognizes the importance of using limited tax dollars wisely, and of avoiding wasteful or excessive spending," the officials added.

The department's arguments, however, haven't convinced Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

"While taxpayers expect government employees will sometimes need to spend tax dollars to meet in order to share information and gather knowledge on pressing and pertinent issues and to perform outreach in other countries, in these fiscal times, they do not expect or deserve their money to be used on the current jet-set culture at the department," Coburn wrote in a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Eric Holder that was obtained by the Washington Guardian.

Coburn argued that the easy spending on training and other expenses contrasted with Holder's own dire warnings earlier this year that the department faced a crisis because of budget cuts imposed by the sequester deal. DOJ officials had threatened to lay off prison guards and other essential law enforcement, a threat they backed down from.

The senator said in addition to the conference spending, his staff found the department paid for 558 “recreation specialists” in 2012 through the Bureau of Prisons.  Around 100 of these employees earned salaries of more than $70,000 and 13 earned bonuses of more than $1,000, he wrote.

"DOJ should not be threatening to furlough law enforcement agents while paying bonuses to recreation specialists for prisoners or sending bureaucrats on international junkets," he said.

Coburn is demanding the Justice Department provide his staff data on conference spending so far in 2013 as well as its plans for continued travel this summer and fall.