This item has been updated and amended
It’s all fun and games until someone serves $16 muffins.
The Obama administration is ordering a government-wide review of conference expenses after colleague Jerry Markon wrote his way on to the front page of The Washington Post with news of the Justice Department’s extravagant spending habits at 10 law enforcement conferences.
And if you’re planning to attend a previously scheduled team-building meeting in Las Vegas, or that annual “stakeholder’s conference” in Boca Raton, there’s a good chance it might get canned.
In what will one day rank as one of the greatest of federal watchdog reports, Acting Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar and her team faulted the Justice Department for hefty service tabs accrued during conferences hosted at some of the nation’s glitziest hotels. To wit: A $76-per-person lunch at a conference at a Hilton in San Francisco featured slow-cooked Berkshire pork carnitas (yum), hearts-of-romaine salad (always good) — and coffee at $8.24 a cup (seriously?).
The Obama White House — always eager to demonstrate it’s cutting government waste — is now cracking down.
In a memo, Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew alerted federal agencies Thursday that they must conduct a “thorough review” of all conference costs in time for a December Cabinet meeting about cutting government waste.
Meantime, deputy secretaries (who normally handle day-to-day management issues) or other top officials must approve all conference-related activities and costs to avoid equally embarrassing situations.
Notably, Lew’s memo runs more than two pages, with most of it spinning (sorry, reminding) government employees that the Obama administration has been working tirelessly “From the start of this administration” to cut “unnecessary or wasteful spending.” There’s the new Campaign to Cut Waste, reducing the use of no-bid contracts and plans to buy office supplies in bulk, among several other examples.
But, sorry OMB, all the cutbacks in the world can’t keep us from writing about $16 muffins.
And the poor Justice Department can’t seem to catch a break. Back in July 2009, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reacted angrily to news reports that the departments of Agriculture and Justice were avoiding resort destinations in Orlando and Las Vegas in favor of holding conferences in less exciting cities (their words, not ours), including St. Louis, Denver or Minneapolis.
Turns out department officials were avoiding Orlando and Las Vegas in hopes of keeping reporters from writing stories about taxpayers footing the bill for meetings at lavish hotels or Disney World.
OK, good start. Now just stop serving expensive food.
UPDATE 9/23/01 9:23 a.m. ET:
In a statement issued Thursday night, Hilton Hotels — one of the hotel chains singled out in the inspector general report, defended and explained its pricing policies:
“Hilton has a long standing practice of working with government agencies to plan meetings and events that fall within their budgets. Usually provided by the agencies themselves, these budgets are reflective of the pricing structure of the destination, local taxes, gratuities and other fees. Hotel teams tailor these events to provide maximum value and ensure the best experience possible. 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. In Washington, the contracted breakfast included fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity, for an inclusive price of $16 per person. At each hotel, menu pricing structures are derived by a comprehensive review of the competitive local market. Additionally, hotels typically offer guest rooms at per diem rates established by the government.”
Our original report on this subject quoted from the publicly released inspector general report that said conference organizers served 250 muffins costing a total of $4,200, or $16.80 per muffin at a Hilton-owned hotel. The report also repeatedly referred to “$16 muffins.”
We appreciate Hilton’s clarficiation of events — and the reminder that government contracting can be an incredibly complex issue to understand.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost