Yes, hotel food is overpriced. But $16 muffins, $5 sodas, and $8 cups of coffee are still pretty pricey for a government agency -- or anyone.
Well, here is something you don't see every day.
The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General Tuesday released a report blandly titled "Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs." The menu may be tough to digest -- it's 148 pages, after all -- but political gourmands of all persuasions are likely to find its main entrees simply delectable, especially since they are being presented for public consumption at a time when official Washington is supposed to be tightening its belt and pushing itself away from the table.
Internal inspectors -- from the same office which once upon a time investigated the Justice Department's role in the 2006 U.S. Attorney scandal -- have concluded that mid-level DOJ officials consistently failed in 2008 and 2009 to follow federal guidelines designed to keep food and beverage costs at reasonable rates for government-sponsored conferences. They were taken advantage of, in other words, by private contractors (See? It doesn't just happen with military contracts). Here from the report is a sample platter of the OIG's findings:
... DOJ spent about $490,000 (11 percent of costs) on food and beverages at the 10 conferences. All the conferences occurred at major hotels that applied service fees - usually around 20 percent - to the cost of already expensive menu items. Our assessment of food and beverage charges revealed that some DOJ components did not minimize conference costs as required by federal and DOJ guidelines. For example, one conference served $16 muffins while another served Beef Wellington hors d'oeuvres that cost $7.32 per serving. Coffee and tea at the events cost between $0.62 and $1.03 an ounce. At the $1.03 per-ounce price, an 8-ounce cup of coffee would have cost $8.24.
It's a bipartisan mess. Inspectors looked specifically at 10 DOJ conferences in 2008-2009, six during the last year of the Bush Administration, when the Justice Department was led by Michael Mukasey, the former judge selected to replace the hapless Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. They also looked at four conferences during the first year of the Obama Administration, when the Department was led, as it is today, by Attorney General Eric Holder. Alas, it will be Holder who will have to answer the inevitable questions and deflect the inevitable comparisons. "Let them eat cake? How about letting them eat a $16 muffin?"