September 30, 2011

So, was it really a $16 muffin?

The Justice Department’s acting inspector general said it was a $16 muffin. Her office’s 148-page audit report cites it nine times as an example of profligacy. And Post Justice Department reporter Jerry Markon said it was a $16 muffin in his Sept. 21 front-page story.

I think the IG makes a good case that Justice spends too much on conferences. But I don’t think it was a $16 muffin, and several things tell me it wasn’t: the IG’s own numbers; a statement from Hilton Hotels; a visit to the Capital Hilton’s restaurant, which is a few hundred feet from The Post; and my experience going to and setting up events in Washington.

And, as a journalist, my instinct tells me that the muffin story was just a bit too good to be true.

I’ve been to too many conferences, as I’m sure many readers have. At cheaper conferences, the fare is usually continental breakfast: muffins, bagels, Danish, some fresh fruit if you’re lucky, and coffee. Then mid-afternoon, to keep you awake, there’s a snack: usually brownies, cookies and energy bars plus coffee. No lunches or dinners provided.

That was the case for the August 2009 Legal and Interpreters Training Conference at the Hilton, put on by Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review. This was a conference providing mandatory legal training to immigration judges, attorneys, paralegals (and court language interpreters) so their decisions on who to deport or who to keep are consistent.

The total cost of food and beverage for the five-day conference, with 534 attendees, was $39,360, including an automatic 20 percent service fee the hotel puts on food for conferences. That amounts to $7,872 per day for breakfast and snacks. Divide that by 534 people attending, and you get $14.74 per person per day for continental breakfast and snacks. That’s 2 pennies per person per day above the Justice guidelines on what can be spent each day on refreshments. Gosh, two cents.

The IG’s report acknowledges that figure is correct, notes that Justice officials asked Hilton to keep the price to about $14 per head, and credits Justice for not providing other meals for the five-day conference.

Now, this is an expensive city. At the Capital Hilton restaurant, a serving of coffee is $5. You can get a selection of any two pastries — bagel, muffin or croissant — for $5.50. If you want a fruit plate, it sets you back $16.

So a continental breakfast, with fruit, at the Capitol Hilton for a person off the street is $26.50, plus the 10 percent D.C. tax on restaurant meals, or $29.15, not including tip. Justice paid $14.72 for its continental breakfasts, and it got afternoon snacks thrown in.

So why did the IG’s office say the immigration judges were eating $16 muffins? Because the itemized receipts from Hilton are imprecise: The coffee and fruit were provided free, and they allocated all the fees to the muffins, croissants, bagels, brownies and cookies provided for morning and afternoon refreshment. Hence it looks like $16 per morning pastry and $9 for afternoon brownies, cookies, and bags of chips. But really it was $14.72 per head per day.

A day after the initial Post story, Hilton came out with its clarification. Markon was at a hospital with his 12-year-old son. The Post’s Federal Eye blogger, Ed O’Keefe, reported the Hilton clarification in two blog posts on Sept. 22 and 23.

If you’re a newspaper reader, you may have seen Ruth Marcus’s column on the subject or maybe, but probably not, a tiny Associated Press story on the bottom of page A16 on Sept. 23, noting the Hilton’s statement. That’s unfortunate. The Hilton should have been called for the original A1 story.

“Yes, we should have called Hilton,” said Barbara Vobejda, Markon’s editor. “While it does not excuse our failure to call, I can say that we did not realize until late that night on deadline which hotel hosted which conference; we did not necessarily feel the hotels had done anything wrong; and none of several editors who were involved in the story thought to suggest that we get comment from each of the hotels mentioned. That, in hindsight, was a mistake.”

The Hilton was mentioned on page 32 of the report and the hotels for all of the 10 conferences audited by the IG were listed in Appendix II, pages 68-77.

All of us scribes love nothing more than to do a front-page story with national impact, as this one had. But our first duty is to get as close to the truth as possible, even if that’s a bit less sensational.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.