$16 muffins lead to review of meeting expenses

WASHINGTON Wed Sep 21, 2011 8:55pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday ordered federal agencies to review expenses for conferences after an embarrassing report revealed the Justice Department served $16 muffins at a 2009 gathering.

Office of Management and Budget chief Jack Lew directed agency heads to conduct a thorough review of how taxpayer dollars are being spent on conferences.

Under the directive, a deputy secretary or other senior agency official will have to approve conference-related expenses while the review is underway.

A report by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General on Tuesday said the agency spent $121 million on conferences over two years, exceeding its own spending limits.

Some of the spending appeared to be "extravagant and wasteful," the audit said.

"We found the Department spent $16 on each of the 250 muffins served at an August 2009 legal conference in Washington," the report said.

The audit focused only on 10 conferences held during the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years.

Other examples of waste reported were snacks at $32 per person, $10 brownies, $8.00 coffee, and nearly $600,000 for event planning services for five conferences.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said on Wednesday the Justice Department took steps in 2009 to curb wasteful or excessive spending for conferences.

"At the beginning of this year, the attorney general issued a memo ordering the reduction of spending, including the suspension of all nonessential conferences," Cole said in a statement.

Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the administration's effort to cut waste at federal agencies, last week asked Cabinet secretaries to do more to end unnecessary spending.

He said he expects a progress report from agency heads at their next meeting in December, including "what they are doing to get on top of conference-related expenses."

"Every day, middle-class families are making tough choices to make ends meet," Biden said in a statement.

"It is our responsibility to make sure that their taxpayer dollars are not wasted."

(Reporting by JoAnne Allen; editing by Todd Eastham)

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