Justice Dept. hit over big spending
One audit find: muffins for $16
WASHINGTON - Where can you get a $16 muffin?
At a Justice Department conference, auditors said Monday in a report that does not come close to topping the Pentagon’s legendary $400 hammer and $600 toilet seat but does, the auditors said, expose “wasteful or extravagant spending.’’
Cynthia Schnedar, the Justice Department’s acting inspector general, said in the report that some conferences featured “costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks’’ and that the department failed to minimize costs as required by federal and internal guidelines.
Among the examples: Beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres at $7.32 per serving; a Cracker Jacks, popcorn, and candy snack for $32 per person, and coffee costing more than $1 per ounce, making a single cup $8.24.
And the $16 muffins? They were served at a 2009 legal training conference in Washington by Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The report describes the $4,200 spent on 250 muffins and $2,880 on 300 cookies and brownies (nearly $10 each) as very costly.
In all, the report said, the department hosted or participated in 1,832 conferences in 2008 and 2009, at a cost of $121 million. Each of the 10 conferences examined by auditors - covering topics ranging from drug enforcement to violence against women - were at major hotels that applied service fees of roughly 20 percent “to the cost of already expensive menu items,’’ the report said. Most of the conferences were held or planned during President George W. Bush’s administration
In responses included with the 148-page document, Justice Department officials said they mostly concurred with Schnedar’s recommendations for reducing expenses and vowed to review their policies on conferences. And a department spokeswoman said Monday that conference spending had been reduced in the first six months of this year as part of an effort to curtail nonessential spending.
But the department disputed several of the findings, including Schnedar’s contention that the department spent nearly $3,500 in “unallowable and unnecessary’’ costs to fly a consultant three times between Alaska and California to help plan a 2008 conference on reducing violence on Indian lands.
“The consultant was the only event planner who had the expertise and knowledge’’ in areas such as “substantive knowledge of Native American traditions and cultures,’’ wrote Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs.
Also included in the report is a May 2009 internal memo from then Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. He vowed that the department would pay special attention to controlling costs at conferences.
“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,’’ Ogden wrote.
But auditors said they found the same pattern of overspending at conferences uncovered in an earlier inspector general audit in 2007. That report found that the Justice Department spent $4 per meatball at one lavish dinner and spread around an average $25 worth of snacks to each participant at a movie-themed party.
The Justice Department’s management and administration office promised at the time to prevent future such extravagances.