Justice Department’s $16 Muffins and $32 Cracker Jacks

The DOJ needs to go on a low-carb diet.

The US Justice Department spent $16 per muffin and $5 per meatball at recent conferences, an internal audit found.

Bloomberg (“$16 Muffins Found at U.S. Meetings“):

U.S. Justice Department agencies spent too much for food at conferences, in one case serving $16 muffins and in another dishing out beef Wellington appetizers that cost $7.32 per serving, an audit found. ”Some conferences featured costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending,” the Justice Department’s inspector general wrote in a report released today.

The inspector general reviewed a sample of 10 Justice Department conferences held between October 2007 and September 2009 at a cost of $4.4 million, a period that included the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. The Justice Department spent $73.3 million on conferences in fiscal 2009, compared with $47.8 million a year earlier, according to the report.

The muffins were served at an August 2009 conference of the Executive Office for Immigration Review and the beef Wellington was offered at a February 2008 meeting hosted by the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. A March 2009 conference of the Office on Violence Against Women served Cracker Jack, popcorn and candy bars at a single break, costing $32 per person, according to the report.

The report is a follow-up to one from 2007 that found the Justice Department had few controls to limit the costs of conference planning, food and beverages. That audit cited a reception that included Swedish meatballs costing $5 apiece.

In April 2008 the Justice Department issued policies and procedures designed to control conference spending. The new report found that agencies were able to “circumvent meal and refreshment cost limits” when conferences were planned under cooperative agreements, a type of funding awarded by a Justice Department agency.

Let’s stipulate that food is outrageously expensive at conference hotels and that itemized costs are often dubious, with some items inflated to keep others under artificial spending limits.* The numbers are nonethless mindboggling. $79 million for one agency’s conference budget? Consider that the entire budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds NPR and PBS, is $430 million.

Now, unlike Stacy McCain (“‘MuffinGate’: Obama Says We Must Tax the Rich Because Federal Officials Can’t Do Without $5 Swedish Meatballs“), I don’t think there’s enough of this kind of waste in the federal budget to bring our fiscal situation into balance. But we agree that there’s too much of it.

CBS News chief legal analyst Andrew Cohen (“$16 for a Muffin?! A Justice Department Boondoggle“) calls this a “bipartisan mess.” But, really, I’m not expecting the Attorney General to go through the food budget. This is more a symptom of bureaucracy run amok, with an added twist of the scourge of contracting out services that should be done in house.

At places all over the country and the world, the conferences took place after the Justice Department had been warned by the OIG in 2007 that there was too little oversight over food and beverage costs. Investigators determined, for example, that the DOJ “spent $600,000 (14 percent of costs) to hire training and technical assistance providers as external event planners for 5 of the 10 conferences reviewed. This was done without demonstrating that these firms offered the most cost effective logistical event planning services. Further, these event planners did not accurately track and report conference expenditures.”

Business Insider‘s Linette Lopez (“You’ll Never Guess How Much The Justice Department Spends On Party Snacks“) notes that the $32 Cracker Jacks were at a conference of the Office on Violence Against Women. Insert tasteless  joke here.

Hot Air‘s AllahPundit quips, “I know you’re angry, but don’t forget that DOJ made some extra cash this year selling AK-47s to Mexican drug cartels.” On the matter of the $5.57 sodas, he adds, “That’s a fair price if you’re in a stadium watching football, less so if you’re in a ballroom watching Eric Holder sweat while he ducks questions about who knew what vis-a-vis Operation Fast & Furious. ”


*My hunch proved correct. See my follow-up post, “When Is A $16 Muffin Not a $16 Muffin?

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    I think there is some play on words here about a “buffet rule”.
    But I’ll leave it to you word-smiths to fine tune.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Let’s stipulate that food is outrageously expensive at conference hotels and that itemized costs are often dubious, with some items inflated to keep others under artificial spending limits.

    Why are they holding their conferences at conference hotels rather than high school auditoriums, gymnasiums, and other facilities? I’d say national guard armories but most of them have been closed.

    Several points come to mind. First, according to the article the conferences in question took place between 2007 and 2009. I think this ties in neatly with the observation that we just aren’t as rich as we thought we were. Unfortunately, the AG’s office is still as rich as they think they are so they haven’t received the message.

    Second, IMO high income, feelings of entitlement, and distance from the people you serve are all corrupting. If you say we should be attracting the best and the brightest to government service and paying them commensurately, you’re bringing all of the things that go with that right along with them including $16 muffins and mini-Beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres.

    Lawyers are not a scarce commodity and, given the large numbers of layoffs at the top law firms, salaries for lawyers are likely to decline if anything. Their conferences shouldn’t be held at the Ritz and running out to Dunkin Donuts is plenty good for them.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: You raise an interesting larger point, Dave. Industry conferences tend to be very highfalutin and bringing people together from across the country or globe tends to require congregating at a hotel since people have to stay somewhere, it’s more convenient to have them stay at the place where the convention is, and it’s often cheaper to combine venues.

    But maybe government shouldn’t emulate industry and instead should be ostentatiously cost-conscious.

  4. mike says:

    They are going to do what they can get away with. Start firing people and send a message and this will not happen again until memories fade.

  5. JKB says:

    This is just the government employees wanting to live like the private sector. After income tax came into being, corporations started providing on the job perks as a form of compensation, travel (along with frequent flyer points), lavish conferences or sales meetings, provided drinks and snacks, on-site services, etc. There grows a feeling, especially among the DC crowd, that they to should have such “extras”. It seemed to me when I was in DC that there was always some low-grade scandal of some office or other trying to use appropriated funds to provide food at a meeting.

    Now, it appears these conferences weren’t just for federal employees so the issue is more cost than appropriateness of provision. What happens is they office putting on the conference wants to “entertain” like the evil corporations. But of course, the corporations aren’t entertaining with funds forceable taken from the taxpayer but that doesn’t seem to bother the senior government bureaucrats who continually want to spend tax dollars to entertain like the private sector.

  6. JKB says:


    Problem is, the person whose name is on the contract isn’t the one who is responsible. It is some low level secretary or assistant who didn’t stand up the the SES or political who demanded this level of service.

  7. just me says:

    Yes, food is expensive. Yes ,conferences are often expensive. Sometimes you have to have them, but not always with the most expensive options. I also think it is a drop in the budget hat when it comes to money spent, but then when we have to cut costs in the family budget it is often the little things that add up that are the easiest to cut first because the biggest things are set and not changing (like house payments, car payments and utility bills). Making coffee at home verses buying it-is a small thing, but savings are savings and they add up if you start cutting a lot of the little things.

    I don’t think it is reasonable to cut all confrences from the justice department. Some are probably worthwhile and necessary. I think the easy answer is to allot X amount towards conferences. If the money runs out, it runs out and you either don’t have the conference, provide less/different food at the conference, change the venue or something else.

  8. mike says:

    @JKB: sorry but your just plain wrong – secretaries and assistants can’t sign contracts for $100,000s for these things — these expensive conferences and contracts require much higher levels of approval

  9. anjin-san says:

    Those prices are not out of line with what I pay when I host events in suites at the ballpark. On the other hand, we are in the black and the government is not. They should look for ways to dial it back a bit, for the sake of optics if nothing else.

    @ JKB – you don’t get out much, do you?

  10. john personna says:

    I’m sure someone is trying to clean this up at the Justice Department (and others) right now. Many of your suggestions are good. Cheaper venues, more competitive bidding, less food (lol), more budget review … we just need reporters to check back a year from now and see how they did.

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    When I found similar prices overruns at the budget of a public school district in Brazil I knew that I was dealing with fraud.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    Has anyone here ever put on a conference? As someone who has both arranged them and has to go to too many of them I can tell you I absolutely can see how this happens and I don’t think it will be easy to get rid of. You bring in 100 people. You can either have them meet at the hotel or try to find a cheaper venue, but where, another hotel? Then have them taxi over? You don’t have event planners on your staff so you have to make these arrangements yourself. How much time do you think someone with a real job has to spend on this stuff? When you have an all day meeting and the hotel says $8.99 per person for coffee, snack and “catering”, you don’t add up the number of cookies and divide by the number of people. But yeah, if you did, it’s a ripoff. Unless you count the conference room rental, which you got for ‘free’

  13. MarkedMan says:

    The more I think about this, the madder I get. Not at the “gummint bureaucrats” but at the whiners. Read the article. Part of the “scandal” is about bringing in a consultant event planner that charged about $3500 in travel to fly out to the venue and make arrangements. She went three times. Call it $1200 a trip. This is a scandal? Just how much do you people think it costs to travel? And then there was another “scandal” involving hiring outside event planners for some of the bigger conferences and them charging $600K. Nothing in the article about what they did, how many conferences, how many staffers, just this dollar number. So the “conservatives” have been railing about how it is so much cheaper to do things outside the gummint since Ronnie’s tenure, and have done everything they can to cause that to happen (all the while the contractors stuff money in their pockets). They’ve been successful in eliminating position after position from government agency staffs, (and in the war zones replacing privates spooning glop onto mess hall trays at $12K/year and who can carry a gun with contractors costing $250K a year and needing a private with a gun to guard them). And now the scandal is that outside contractors cost more having someone on staff do it? That’s the fault of the poor slob trying to get this thing organized and not the moronic “conservative” politicians?

    When did “conservative” become a synonym for “idiot”?

  14. liberty60 says:

    When asked about a reported 79 million dollar overrun, a Pentagon spokesman required several moments to compose himself before answering…

  15. Rob in CT says:
  16. James Joyner says:

    @Rob in CT: Oddly, all I get is a headline, and ad, and some comments

  17. Beth Boggs says:

    There may be other places that there is waste, but this was proven to not be very outrageous, since the Hilton explained that it was for breakfast. Unfortunately, those who gave this a lot of attention will rarely give a retraction the same attention. The problem is that the original articles get everyone all fired up and frustrated, and so it would really be nice if they were given the correct information, so they wouldn’t have to have any more stress in their lives than necessary. It is really the ethical responsibility of those who reported on anything upsetting, to set the record straight if additional information becomes available.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Beth Boggs: We devoted a whole post to this the next day and appended an update here. But the origin of the “$16 muffin” trope was the DOJ Inspector General’s report itself, which repeatedly emphasized it, not bad media reporters.