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Federal Eye
Posted at 04:30 PM ET, 09/23/2011

Another bite of the muffin

Let’s take another bite of the muffin — and a closer look at the receipt.

The Justice Department did not pay $16 each for muffins served at a legal conference at a Hilton Hotel in Washington, the hotel chain said Friday, disputing a federal watchdog report that appeared on front page of Wednesday’s Washington Post.

At issues are final food and beverage costs for a five-day legal conference held at Washington’s Capital Hilton in August 2009 that totaled $39,360, according to the report published by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Neither the hotel chain or auditors dispute the final costs, but Hilton disagrees with how investigators tallied individual costs.

Over five days, Hilton billed the Justice Department $9,000 for 1,250 cups of coffee, $2,880 for 300 “fruit and granola bars” and $4,200 for 250 “assorted muffins,” totaling $16.80 apiece, according to invoices and banquet checks reviewed by the IG’s office. The hotel did not charge DOJ for about 200 pieces of fruit and 45 cups of coffee and iced tea, the receipts said.

Hilton, unaware of the audit report until after its publication, said Friday that conference attendees enjoyed a continental breakfast spread of fruit, coffee, juice — and the infamous muffins — for a cost of about $14 per person (including tax and service charges).

The hotel chain “has a long standing practice of working with government agencies to plan meetings and events that fall within their budgets,” it said in a statement issued late Thursday.

The IG’s office on Friday said it stood by its report, and that it had made several attempts to reach the Capital Hilton during the course of the audit, but the hotel did not respond to numerous requests.

A Hilton spokesman said Friday he could not immediately verify whether the hotel had been contacted by the IG’s office.

With Washington in the throes of a spending battle, the report’s findings angered lawmakers eager to demonstrate their committment to cutting federal largesse. And the Obama administration reacted swiftly, with the Justice Department faulting George W. Bush’s administration for most of the costs and the White House ordering federal agencies to rein in conference and meeting expenditures in time for a Cabinet meeting set for December.

But it seems, nobody — including the reporter who broke the story — checked the cost details with Hilton, leading the company to cough up crumbs and issue a clarification.

Final dining receipts “are often abbreviated and do not reflect the full pre-contracted menu and service provided,” Hilton said in its statement. Costs for waiters, rent, transportation and other operational costs are spread out across the goods and services provided, occasionally leading to higher than normal per unit costs, the chain said.

Private companies rarely challenge the findings of government watchdog reports, but the Government Accountability Office last year revised portions of a report on recruiting practices in for-profit higher education after companies mentioned in the report, including The Washington Post Company’s Kaplan unit, raised concerns.

But federal agencies regularly spar with inspectors general and the GAO over reports, often faulting investigators for using outdated data, making incorrect monetary estimates based on analyses of partial spending reports, or tweaking data to present a more dramatic conclusion.

In May 2010, the General Services Administration discounted a GAO report for concluding that dozens of newly constructed federal courthouses contained about 3.6 million square feet of extra space. The agency argued that the investigation’s tallies incorrectly included negative space in the atriums of tall buildings and “phantom floors” in double-height courtrooms. The incorrect measurements meant auditors mistakenly assigned normal operating and construction costs to the empty space, GSA said.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

A $16 muffin? Justice Dept. audit finds ‘wasteful’ and extravagant spending

No more $16 muffins for you!

GAO revises its report critical of practices at for-profit schools

Audit: Newer federal courthouses are too big

By  |  04:30 PM ET, 09/23/2011

Categories:  Oversight, Agencies and Departments

 
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