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$5 A Meatball: Internal Audit Finds Overspending at Justice Department

At nearly $5 a meatball, it better be sitting on some pretty good pasta.

An internal audit of Justice Department conferences and related costs over the past two years included the pricey food item as one of several instances of apparent overspending. The department spent to the tune of $7 million hosting, planning or sending employees to 10 conferences.

This included paying nearly $5 per meatball at one lavish dinner and spreading an average of $25 worth of snacks around to each participant at a movie-themed party.

• Click here to read the full report from the Justice Department inspector general (.pdf).

The report concluded there weren't necessarily problems with going to the conferences, but rather with oversight.

"DOJ conference sponsors adequately justified reasons to hold the conferences, but inconsistently performed and documented comparisons of costs among potential sites," the report's executive summary said.

However, "the DOJ does not maintain a single financial system capable of providing the actual costs of DOJ conferences. As a result, when asked to provide conference expenditures to Congress, some DOJ components reported budgeted, awarded and estimated conference costs instead of actual expenses, while others did not uniformly include travel or personnel costs."

In addition to the meatball, the audit found items that rounded out later courses of a meal, too.

For instance, the department spent more than $13,000 on cookies and brownies for 1,542 attendees of a four-day conference in 2005. A "networking session" that offered butterfly shrimp, coconut lobster skewers and Swedish meatballs for a Community Oriented Policing Services conference in July 2006 cost more than $60,000.

The report, which looked at the 10 priciest Justice Department conferences between October 2004 and September 2006, was ordered by the Senate Appropriations Committee. It also found that three-quarters of the employees who attended the conferences demanded daily reimbursement for the cost of meals while traveling — effectively double-dipping into government funds.

Auditors "found that using appropriated funds to pay for expensive meals and snacks at certain DOJ conferences, while allowable, appear to have been extravagant," the report concluded.

Responding, the Justice Department's management and administration office promised to prevent future extravagances of the sort that that Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine's auditors turned up.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.