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IG Reconsiders $16 Muffins

The Justice Department's inspector general has rethought its recent assertion that agency employees at a professional conference got bilked for breakfast muffins at $16 a pop.

In response to continuing media coverage and denials by Justice and the hotel chain that hosted the fateful event, a spokesman for the IG on Tuesday issued the following statement, originally in response to a query from Bloomberg Businessweek:

The $16 muffin was based on documentation obtained during the audit showing that the department was invoiced by the Capital Hilton Hotel $4,200 including gratuity and service charge for 250 muffins. Although we made repeated attempts over several months to reach the Capital Hilton during the course of the audit to discuss its billing, it was not responsive to our numerous requests. Since our report was issued, the Capital Hilton has stated that other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount, but did not provide any supporting documentation. Even if the $4,200 fee included additional food and beverage items, the OIG believes, as stated in our report, that many individual food and beverage items listed on conference invoices and paid by the department...

Cataloging Contractor Misconduct

A not-inconsiderable 1,400 instances of unresolved misconduct charges against federal contractors were catalogued and posted Thursday by the nonprofit watchdog Project on Government Oversight. The misconduct ranged from overcharging to violation of Medicaid fraud reporting laws.

The largest contractors have coughed up $25.3 billion in fines and penalties, the researchers found in updating POGO's annual rankings of the top 100 contractors across the government. Collectively those large contractors were awarded $276 billion in fiscal 2010, about half the total paid to federal contractors.

Improving Government the 'Moneyball' Way

Last week the movie version of the Michael Lewis book Moneyball opened, starring Brad Pitt in the role of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane.

Beane is portrayed in the book and the film as a heroic challenger to baseball's conventional wisdom who developed a new method of evaluating players and assessing overall team strengths that enabled his small-market club to compete against much better capitalized behemoths like the New York Yankees. So it's not surprising that the Office of Management and Budget now wants federal agencies to follow the Billy Beane model.

moneyball-poster.jpg

Today on OMB's blog, Shelley Metzenbaum, the agency's associate director of performance and personnel management, writes that the Obama administration "has been taking its own Moneyball approach to management, driving performance and, ultimately, saving money":

Like Beane, who understood that his goal was to win games - not hit the most home runs, government agencies must learn to be clear about what they want to accomplish and not get stuck in the rut of doing what they have always done. That means setting real, achievable goals that align with agency mission, and sticking to them. For some agencies or programs, that means staying...

Virginia Lawmakers Play Traffic Cop

The forced march of some 6,400 national security employees to presumably safer digs in the Washington suburbs has never sat well with the Northern Virginia congressional delegation.

With the multi-agency moves required under the Base Realignment and Closure process now underway, skepticism about the Pentagon's ability to manage the long-foreseen traffic congestion has prompted a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from Reps. Jim Moran and Gerry Connolly and Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb.

The four Democrats are asking the Pentagon to help them keep an eye on commuter woes at the Mark Center on I-395 in Alexandria. They ask Panetta to provide a list of any changes the Defense Department makes to the project's transportation management plan, to detail all planned traffic abatement measures planned in case the current strategy fails to ease gridlock, to consider mandatory alternative work schedules, and to publish measurements of rises in traffic volume every 30 days.

Angry commuters vote.

Washington Monument Elevator Woes

The Aug. 23 East Coast earthquake, which caused cracks in the Washington Monument, also damaged its elevator, the National Park Service said on Monday.

Because of suspected damage to the elevator's counterweights, the lift can rise only to the 250-foot level.

Engineers -- including skilled "rappelers" who will scale the sides of the 550-foot structure for a close inspection -- are still working on a plan for repairs, costs and a date for re-opening to tourists.

Here's video of the inside of the monument during the earthquake:

McCain Jumps In On Postal Problems

Seems everyone wants a hand in the U.S. Postal Service's troubles -- especially as the clock ticks toward the agency's impending default on obligations to its retiree health benefits account.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Friday introduced a companion bill to legislation sponsored earlier this year by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Dennis Ross, R-Fla. The House subcommittee responsible for postal issues on Wednesday moved that proposal on to the full committee level.

The bills would allow USPS to drop a delivery day and adjust its labor costs, specifically by changing benefits and collective bargaining protections. That covers some of the changes postal officials have said are necessary to get back on the road to fiscal health, but Democrats in the House are concerned that employees and retirees will lose out in the process.

There are a number of postal reform proposals already in play -- and it they continue to pop up as the Postal Service inches closer to its Sept. 30 deadline.

GOP's Supercommittee Wish List: Pay, Benefits, Workforce Cuts

Talking Points Memo has gotten its hands on what it says appears to be a Republican wish list of proposals for the congressional supercommittee looking at ways to slash the federal budget. Apparently, someone left the document on a table outside the House Speaker's lobby.

So what's on the list? Well, if you're a federal employee, suffice it to say you're probably not going to be thrilled. TPM writes:

Most of the ideas focused on finding costs savings by reducing the federal workforce, eliminating cost-of-living increases for federal workers and increasing the amount federal employees contribute to their retirements and list either the bipartisan "fiscal commission," the "House budget resolution" or the Congressional Budget Office as the source of the ideas.

But one idea identifies "Chairman Issa" as the source, while another lists "leadership discussions," an apparent reference to ideas being floated around the GOP leadership table run by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Issa's idea would eliminate "periodic step increases" for federal employees' salaries and is estimated to save $1 billion.

"Federal employees receive periodic step increases driven largely by passage of time equivalent to three percent of basic pay," the doc states.

The other...

When Is a $16 Muffin Not a $16 Muffin?

The great $16 muffin scandal at the Justice Department has taken another turn.

The Associated Press reports that Hilton Worldwide, accused in a DOJ inspector general report of charging the extravagant muffin prices at a 2009 legal training conference in Washington, says IG auditors misinterpreted its invoices. The prices it charged included not just baked goods but fresh fruit, coffee, tea, soft drinks, tax and tips.

"Dining receipts are often abbreviated and do not reflect the full pre-contracted menu and service provided, as is the case with recent media reports of breakfast items approved for some government meetings," Hilton Worldwide officials said in a statement.

Even before Hilton issued its response, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones was skeptical of the tale of the overpriced muffin on Wednesday. After reviewing the IG report, he wrote:

So did DOJ really pay $16 for muffins? Of course not. In fact, it's obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they...

Dollar Value of IGs

The latest numbers on the effectiveness of the government's 62 inspectors general are now available in a Government Accountability Office report, which quantifies their value in the eternal battles against waste, fraud and abuse: a potential $18 for every dollar invested, GAO said.

In fiscal 2009, IGs "identified $43.3 billion in potential savings from audits and investigations; and reported over 5,900 criminal actions, 1,100 civil actions, 4,460 suspensions or debarments, and over 6,100 indictments resulted from their work," GAO said.

IGs also helped the Recovery Board, receiving more than 7,000 complaints of wrongdoing associated with Recovery Act funds, opening more than 1,500 investigations, and completing more than 1,400 reviews.

What also leaps out from the report, according to Jake Wiens, an investigator for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, is that IGs report a feeling of independence from political pressure. "That speaks volumes," he said, about fulfilling the intentions of IG provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law and the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act.

Southern Lights From Space

Amazing NASA video from the International Space Station of the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights:

The video was shot on Sept. 17, as the space station passed from south of Madagascar to just north of Australia over the Indian Ocean.

(Hat tip: National Journal)