Justice Department’s muffin controversy reheats

This story has been updated.

Last week's much discussed report that Justice Department employees filed expense reports for hotel breakfast muffins costing $16 was rebutted by an agency spokeswoman over the weekend, but that hasn't quieted a senator who wants Justice to better economize.

Responding to a media onslaught and a demand from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that President Obama fire whomever was responsible, Justice spokeswoman Gina Talamona issued a statement saying that the invoices cited in an inspector general's report were misinterpreted.

"Under a complete accounting of the services provided for the Executive Office for Immigration Review conference, it is clear that the muffins did not cost $16," she said. "The abbreviated banquet checks did not reflect all of the food and services provided. The package consisted of food, beverages, staff services and function space, including a 450-seat ballroom and more than a dozen workshop and breakout rooms each of the five days of the conference."

That came after Hilton Worldwide, which manages the Capital Hilton where the Justice Department conference took place in 2009, also said the $16 would have included "fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity, for an inclusive price of $16 per person."

But Grassley is not mollified. "The chart in the inspector general report says the muffins cost $16.80 per unit," he said in a statement emailed to Government Executive. "Regardless of whether the $16.80 includes a tip, the bottom line is conference expenses are getting out of hand, and the Justice Department is spending way more on conferences than it did before." The inspector general, he said, reports that in the first year of the Obama administration, conference spending rose 53 percent from the previous year.

"When you get into paying for event planners and $32 snack packs including Cracker Jacks, the conference bills go up quickly," Grassley said. "The Justice Department should realize the fiscal realities of our time and rededicate itself to cutting conference spending instead of nitpicking an inspector general report that's a wake-up call about government spending."

In a letter sent Monday to White House Budget Director Jack Lew, Grassley stressed that the IG's office was standing by its report.

After the IG report was released last week, the Obama administration ordered all agencies to review conference-related spending. The report used fiscal years, so a portion of the 2009 conferences examined took place under the Bush administration.

It updated a 2007 report that made 14 recommendations. In 2008, the department's Justice management division had responded by implementing guidelines that established departmentwide conference food and beverage spending limits based on meals and incidental expenses rates set by the General Services Administration.

This September's report examined in detail 10 Justice conferences, named specific hotels, reprinted menus, and described which officials made the arrangements. "All the conferences occurred at major hotels that applied service fees -- usually around 20 percent -- to the cost of already expensive menu items," the report said. "Our assessment of food and beverage charges revealed that some DOJ components did not minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines.

"For example," the report continued, "one conference served $16 muffins while another served Beef Wellington hors d'oeuvres that cost $7.32 per serving. Coffee and tea at the events cost between $0.62 and $1.03 an ounce. At the $1.03 per-ounce price, an 8-ounce cup of coffee would have cost $8.24."

Hilton's statement elaborated on its handling of federal business. "Hilton has a long-standing practice of working with government agencies to plan meetings and events that fall within their budgets," it said. "Usually provided by the agencies themselves, these budgets are reflective of the pricing structure of the destination, local taxes, gratuities and other fees . . . 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."

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