- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

Months after President Obama urged federal agencies last year to cut wasteful spending, the U.S. Department of State paid $3,814 to fill an order of Jack Daniel’s whiskey for gratuities at one of its many overseas embassies.

The booze buy wasn’t unusual.

Last year alone, the State Department sent taxpayers tabs totaling nearly $300,000 for alcoholic beverages — about twice as much compared to the previous year, according to an analysis of spending records by The Washington Times.

The purchases, small and large, included $2,483 to pay for “assorted spirits for gratuities to vendors” at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, and $9,501 in “Christmas gratuities” of whiskey and wine at the U.S. Embassy in South Korea.

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Taxpayer watchdogs say while accounting for a small fraction of the State Department’s overall budget, some of the liquor expenditures reflect larger concerns about stewardship of federal tax dollars at a time when many recession-weary Americans find themselves struggling to hold onto jobs and pay mortgages.

“It’s indicative of the disconnect that bureaucrats have when they spend our money,” said David Williams, vice president of policy at the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste.

State Department spokesman Noel Clay said such expenditures are permitted under law.

“As part of the department’s work in representing the United States and its interests here and abroad, U.S. officials may hold receptions and representational events,” he said.

“By law, the secretary of state may provide for such receptions and may pay entertainment and representational expenses to enable the Department of State and foreign service to provide for the proper representation of the United States and its interests,” he said.

Mr. Clay also added, “Alcohol is not served at all representational events or official receptions.”

The rise in alcohol spending could be attributed to the increasing number of official receptions that U.S. diplomats might have held after the presidential inauguration and changeover in administrations. But while much of the money paid for “representational activities,” dozens of other purchases in recent years — during both the Bush and Obama administrations — went to pay for what spending records describe as gratuities.

The U.S. Embassy in Germany, for instance, spent $555 in December on gratuities that included 15 bottles of Jim Beam bourbon and three dozen coffee mugs. In a country well-known for making fine beers, the U.S. Embassy in Belgium paid more than $5,000 by opting for “red and white wine for Christmas gratuities,” records show.

The U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg spent $7,160 on alcoholic beverages for “gratuities for local contacts,” while the U.S. Embassy in Greece last year spent more than $20,000 for “representational liquors for Christmas gratuities.”

Other alcohol expenditures as described in purchasing records include:

• $7,554 by the U.S. Embassy in India in September 2008 for a “supply of alcoholic beverages for gratuities.”

• $3,814 by the U.S. Embassy in Slovenia last year for “Gratuities: Whiskey Jack Daniel’s.”

• $2,966 by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York for 106 bottles of Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc wine at $27.99 per bottle for official events.

• $41.98, also by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, for “purchase of two one-liter bottles of Jose Cuervo Clasico Silver Tequila for official events at the U.S. representative’s residence.”

Not all embassies bill taxpayers for liquor when they decide to spend taxpayer money on gratuities, spending records show.

The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica bought “laser pens with USB drive,” documents show. The embassy in Sarajevo bought chocolate gift boxes from the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., while the embassy in Botswana bought mugs.

Within the United States, dozens of the liquor purchases in recent years were made for the U.S. representation at the United Nations at an establishment in New York City called Suebob Liquors Inc. Since 2005, the State Department has spent more than $50,000 at the store, with purchases averaging a little over $1,000, records show.

“We have good prices and good service,” Bob Mann, an assistant manager at the store, said when asked why the State Department seems to prefer the store. He also said the store handles corporate accounts and delivers.

Mr. Clay said because the Suebob purchases are so low, the State Department doesn’t have to seek other bidders: “If the purchase is under $3,000, federal acquisition regulation says that it does not have to be competitively bid,” he said.

The Times’ review of purchasing records examined all expenditures listed under a specific product services code for “alcoholic beverages” contained in a federal spending database. The findings showed that purchases rose from $139,657 in 2008 to $294,639 last year.

Alcohol-related purchases totaled around $160,000 each in 2006 and 2007, down from $216,430 in 2005. That was up from $64,280 in 2004.

Since 2004, records show alcohol purchases at the State Department a little more than $1 million.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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