What Recession? Justice Department Spent Nearly Half a Million on Refreshments

If the 2008 financial crisis caused the nation to tighten its belt, the Justice Department didn’t get the memo.

The federal agency spent about $490,000 on food and beverages at 10 conferences, including $16 apiece for muffins, more than a dollar an ounce for coffee and $32 per person on snacks, according to a new report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

The half-a-million-dollar tab represented more than 10 percent of the $4.4 million total cost of the events that were held between October 2007 and September 2009.

“Some 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,” the report reads, citing a $76-per-person lunch at one workshop.

The inspector general made 10 recommendations to improve oversight and minimize conference costs, all of which were accepted by the Justice Department.

Republicans shook their head in disbelief.

"$16 muffins and $600,000 for event planning services are what make Americans cynical about government and why they are demanding change," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing," he said. "People are outraged, and rightly so. The Inspector General's office just gave a blueprint for the first cuts that should be made by the (deficit-cutting) supercommittee."

The Justice Department implemented a new conference policy in April 2008 after a previous audit found wasteful spending at events held between October 2004 and September 2006. Among the examples were $53-per-person lunches and a $60,000 reception that served Swedish meatballs at $5 a piece.

In the September 2007 report, the inspector general said the agency had “few internal controls to limit the expense of conference planning and food and beverage costs at DOJ conferences.”

The latest report aimed to determine whether the new policy was working.

“Our assessment of food and beverage charges revealed that some DOJ components did not minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines,” the report reads.

In 2008 and 2009, the department hosted or participated in 1,832 conferences costing $121 million.

At a Washington, D.C., legal conference, the department spent $4,200 on 250 muffins -- or more than $16 apiece, the report said.

At another conference, the department's Office on Violence Against Women spent $65 per person at a lunch for 65 people. Coffee cost more than $1 an ounce. A snack break at the same conference cost $32 per person for Cracker Jack, popcorn and candy bars.