Audit: DOJ Conferences Featured $16 Muffins, Hors d’Oeuvres at $7.32 a Pop

By Susan Jones | September 20, 2011 | 12:32 PM EDT

( - Muffins for $16, coffee and tea for $1 an ounce, $65 dinners, $76 lunches, $41 breakfasts, $32 per person for refreshments at a single break. An internal Justice Department audit finds that offices within the DOJ spent too much taxpayer money on food and beverages at some of the conferences they hosted in recent years.

The inspector general's office examined 10 Justice Department (DOJ) conferences that took place between October 2007 and September 2009 to determine whether the costs of conference planning, meals, and refreshments were properly accounted for and minimized.

The 10 sampled conferences -- four in Washington, D.C., three in Palm Springs, Calif., one each in Denver, San Francisco, and Istanbul, Turkey -- cost a total of $4.4 million. Fourteen percent of that total -- $600,000 -- was spent on logistical event-planning services. And DOJ spent $490,000 (11 percent of costs) on food and beverages at those 10 conferences.

The inspector general's report said its 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, 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."

The inspector-general's report also says some of the conferences featured costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks "that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending -- especially when service charges, taxes, and indirect costs are factored into the actual price paid for food and beverages. For example, with these other charges, the Office on Violence Against Women spent $76 per person on the 'Mission Dolores' lunch for 65 people at the Enhancing Judicial Skills Workshop in San Francisco, California."

The report notes that all 10 conferences took place at major hotels that applied service fees -- usually 20 percent -- to the cost of expensive menu items.

As for the $600,000 spent on event planning, "This was done without demonstrating that these firms offered the most cost effective logistical event planning services. Further, these event planners did not accurately track and report conference expenditures," the report said.

The inspector-general's audit concluded that DOJ offices hosting conferences in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 "did not adequately attempt to minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines."

Although eight of the ten conferences took place after April 2008, when the Justice Department issued new policies and procedures to control conference spending, the new rules did not apply to many of the conferences studied, because they were either held or were being planned by the time the rules were issued.

The Justice Department audit nevertheless applied the April 2008 rules to all 10 conferences as a “benchmark” to see if meals and refreshments “appeared to be extravagant or a wasteful use of taxpayer funds.”

The audit found that some conferences apparently did not consider service fees, taxes, and indirect costs when deciding what food and beverages– if any – should be served at a DOJ conference. "In our opinion, the lack of documentation we found regarding the necessity of costly food and beverage items indicated that not all sponsors were seriously questioning the need for expensive meals and refreshments at their events," the inspector general's report said.

The report makes 10 recommendations to help DOJ properly account for and minimize conference costs.

It also details five of the meals served at some of the conferences, as follows:


-- On the first night of the U.S. Attorneys National Conference (February 11-14, 2008 in Washington, D.C.), 84 officials attended a dinner with the Attorney General. The dinner cost $5,431, or almost $65 per person, which is $18.50 (40 percent) more than the $46.50 that would have been permitted under the April 2008 thresholds for dinner. This conference was held in February 2008, about two months before the Justice Department’s Management Division (JMD) issued its food and beverage cost thresholds.

-- On the second day of the 2008 U.S. Attorneys National Conference, 118 participants attended a dinner in Alexandria, Virginia, at the Mount Vernon Inn. The dinner featured a choice of entrees including crusted red snapper, stuffed chicken breast, or beef medallions, all with an assortment of hors d’oeuvres, side dishes, and salads. The dinner cost $58 per person, or almost $12 more (25 percent) than the $46.50 that would have been permitted under the JMD thresholds for dinner.

-- At the AMBER Alert Conference hosted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Denver, Col., Nov. 13-16, 2007), one of the lunches cost almost $15,000 for 360 people, or $47 per person, including service and indirect charges. The lunch, served on the second day of the conference, included “five-spiced beef short rib” entrees with vegetables and creme brulee for dessert. This meal cost $27.50 (141 percent) more than the $19.50 that would have been permitted under the JMD thresholds for lunch. This conference occurred in November 2007 and was planned under a cooperative agreement. The JMD meal price thresholds were therefore not applicable to the conference.

-- At the Indian Nations Conference (Palm Springs,  Calif., Dec. 11- 13, 2008), the Office of Justice Program’s Office for Victims of Crime provided a hot breakfast for 322 people that cost $28.80 per person. This cost would have exceeded the JMD food and beverage thresholds by $12.30 (74 percent) per person had the conference not been planned under a cooperative agreement and if the JMD meal price thresholds were applicable.

-- At the Enhancing Judicial Skills Workshop (San Francisco, March 28-April 1, 2009), the Office on Violence Against Women provided the “Mission Dolores” lunch for 65 people. The menu price of this lunch was $49 per person. However, added to this cost were service charges, taxes, and event planner indirect cost rates, resulting in the OVW incurring $76 for each “Mission Dolores” lunch served. This conference was planned under a cooperative agreement and the JMD meal price thresholds were not applicable to it. Considering this price, had the JMD rules been applicable, the OVW would have exceeded the allowable JMD lunch rate of $27 by $49 (181 percent).