White House orders agencies to review conference spending

Agencies must "seize every opportunity" to cut waste, OMB chief Jacob Lew wrote in memo. Agencies must "seize every opportunity" to cut waste, OMB chief Jacob Lew wrote in memo. Liz Lynch/National Journal
A day after an inspector general's report detailed what auditors deemed wasteful spending on conferences at the Justice Department, the Obama administration has ordered all federal agencies to review their conference-related activities and expenses.

In a statement, Vice President Joe Biden said the reports of "excessive spending on catering" at Justice were "troubling."

The IG report found that in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, Justice organizations hosted or participated in 1,832 conferences costing a total of $121 million. IG auditors reviewed 10 conferences between October 2007 and September 2009, and said they found several instances of "costly meals, refreshments or themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending."

These included $16 muffins, Beef Wellington hors d'oeuvres priced at $7.32 apiece and coffee that worked out to $8.24 for an 8-ounce cup. At a San Francisco workshop, Justice's Office of Violence Against Women spent $76 per person on a lunch and $32 per person on a break that featured Cracker Jacks, popcorn and candy bars.

Eight of the 10 conferences reviewed by the IG office occurred after Justice implemented a policy in April 2008 requiring its units to apply food and beverage spending limits. That policy followed a previous IG report on questionable conference spending at the department.

In a memo to agency heads issued Wednesday, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew said President Obama "has directed me to instruct all agencies and departments to conduct a thorough review of the policies and controls associated with conference-related activities and expenses." Until the deputy secretaries of Cabinet departments certify that appropriate controls are in place to prevent excessive spending, all conference-related expenses must be approved by the deputy secretaries.

"As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars," Lew wrote, "we must seize every opportunity to improve government performance and management so that we save money and deliver a higher quality of service to the American people."

Biden said that at the next meeting of the administration's Campaign to Cut Waste in December, agency heads will be required to report on "what they are doing to get on top of conference-related expenses."

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