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Snacks Take Big Bite Out of DOJ Budget

By LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, September 15, 2007; 5:54 AM

WASHINGTON -- It doesn't rival the Pentagon's $600 toilet seat, but the Justice Department can fork over a mean $4 meatball.

An internal Justice audit, released Friday, showed the department spent nearly $7 million to plan, host or send employees to 10 conferences over the last two years. This included paying $4 per meatball at one lavish dinner and spreading an average of $25 worth of snacks around to each participant at a movie-themed party.

There was plenty, too, for those needing to satisfy a sweet tooth.

More than $13,000 was spent on cookies and brownies for 1,542 people who attended a four-day "Weed and Seed" conference in August 2005, according to the audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. And a "networking" session replete with butterfly shrimp, coconut lobster skewers and Swedish meatballs at 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 Fine's auditors turned up.

Justice spokesman Peter Carr said the report concluded the department "had the right reasons and approvals for each conference, but they found several ways we could make future conferences better and more cost-efficient."

"We are working to address them as quickly as possible," Carr said.

Six of the 10 conferences were approved by the department's Office of Justice Programs, whose assistant attorney general, Regina Schofield, resigned this week. It could not immediately be determined whether the report had anything to do with that, but Carr said Schofield left to take a job with a nonprofit child welfare services organization.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate panel that oversees Justice spending, said the audit raises concerns about how the department uses taxpayer dollars.

"I will continue to fight for legislation that insists on discipline and vigorous oversight in the Justice Department," Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement.

The most expensive conference on the list was a $1.4 million meeting in Denver in May 2006, to discuss Project Safe Neighborhood. The program, which cracks down on guns, gangs and drugs, was a top priority for resigning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Planners spent $143,469 on microphones, video screens and other technical equipment; $108,866 on food and drinks; and $638,371 on travel costs to send employees to the conference, the audit showed.

Ironically, the cheapest meeting on Fine's list was the only one held overseas: $181,648 to send FBI agents to a conference in Cambodia in March 2006. Most of the price tag _ $172,327 _ paid travel costs for the agents.

In all, the department spent $6.9 million on the 10 conferences reviewed. The audit did not compare Justice's conference costs to those at other government agencies.

Despite the expense, the audit showed the department's bottom line has tightened up over the last few years. The price tag for all Justice conferences during the two years came to $81 million _ down from $110 million in 2003-04.

___

The audit by the Justice Department's inspector general can be found at: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/reports/plus/a0742/final.

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© 2007 The Associated Press