The Washington Post

Justice Dept.: Muffins weren’t $16 after all


(James M. Thresher/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The $16 muffin that became a reviled symbol of government waste didn’t cost $16 after all.

That’s the new conclusion of Justice Department auditors, who last month had criticized the department for spending $16.80 apiece for the notorious pastries at a conference at the Capital Hilton in Washington.

On Friday, acting Justice ­Department Inspector General Cynthia A. Schnedar issued a revised report on the department’s conference expenditures. Her new finding: The muffins were part of a continental breakfast that also included items such as fruit, coffee, tea, juice and other pastries.

The new report does not break out a cost for the muffins alone, but a Hilton spokesman has said the entire breakfast cost $16 per person, including taxes and gratuity.

“The department did not pay $16 per muffin,’’ Schnedar’s office wrote, saying that the office regretted the error and that the original conclusion “brought significant negative publicity to the Department and the Capital Hilton.’’

The new audit attributed the error to the Justice Department itself. The report said that Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which sponsored the 2009 conference, had documents showing that the muffins were not as expensive as initially reported. That office “inadvertently” did not give the documents to the inspector general during the audit, the auditors said.

The alleged $16 muffin had caused a major stir at a time when belt-tightening and austerity are the watchwords in Washington. Republicans and Democrats alike blasted the government and held up the pastries as emblems of wasteful spending. The day after the initial audit was released, the Obama administration ordered a government-wide review of conference expenses.

Justice Department auditors emphasized Friday that they were not backing off their overall conclusions that the department should be more careful with conference spending. Their report examined spending practices at 10 law enforcement conferences spanning the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The revised report still described beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres at $7.32 per serving, and a $76-per-person lunch at a conference at a Hilton in San Francisco, featuring slow-cooked Berkshire pork carnitas, hearts-of-romaine salad — and coffee at $8.24 a cup.

Hilton had defended its pricing policies after the original report came out, saying attendees at the legal training conference in Washington had feasted on a continental breakfast spread. It included fruit, coffee, juice and the muffins, Hilton said.

A Hilton spokesman declined to comment Friday on the revised report.

The Justice Department also declined to comment on Friday. After the initial audit, a department spokeswoman had disputed that the muffins cost $16 apiece.

At the Office of Management and Budget, Moira Mack, a spokeswoman, said the review   of conference expenditures was continuing, as part of the broader crackdown on government waste.

“From the start of this Administration, it has been a priority of the President to make sure that the Government operates with the utmost efficiency and eliminates unnecessary or wasteful spending,’’ office director Jacob   J. Lew wrote in a Sept. 21 memo announcing the review.

That memo cited Schnedar’s conclusion that “excessive funds have been spent on a variety of purchases at 10 different law enforcement conferences.’’ It did not mention muffins, $16 or otherwise.

Jerry Markon covers the Department of Homeland Security for the Post’s National Desk. He also serves as lead Web and newspaper writer for major breaking national news.

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