Meeting spending is in the political crosshairs again. The Office of the Inspector General issued a report Tuesday, September 20, criticizing excessive conference spending by the Department of Justice in 2008 and 2009. By Wednesday a $16 muffin was fast becoming a new symbol of government waste, and by Thursday at least one politician, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), was calling for firings at the DOJ as a result of the report.

OIG’s 122-page “Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs” reports that DOJ hosted or participated in 1,832 conferences in 2008 and 2009 at a cost of $121 million. It delivers a detailed audit of event planning and f&b costs at 10 of the “high-dollar” meetings during that period, which had a combined bottom line of $4.4 million.

The audit found much to criticize in those meetings, including $600,000 for event planning services for five of the conferences, which it says was spent “without demonstrating that these firms offered the most cost effective logistical event planning services.” OIG also said that the $490,000 paid for f&b at the 10 conferences “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.” The audit provides meeting-by-meeting, meal-by-meal pricing details for the 10 conferences.

Update: Hilton Worldwide, whose hotel hosted the 2009 legal conference with the "$16 muffin," has refuted the audit's findings, explaining that the invoices were misunderstood and that the $16 covered the cost of muffins, fruit, coffee, tea, taxes, and gratuity.

In a similar audit in 2007, which looked at event spending between 2004 and 2006, OIG found that DOJ had few controls in place to limit conference expenses. After that audit, DOJ implemented conference f&b spending limits, and since 2008, DOJ appropriation acts have required OIG to report conference costs quarterly.

In a statement issued in response to Tuesday’s audit, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole stated, “The Attorney General will not tolerate wasteful or excessive spending of any kind. That is why, in 2009, Department leadership took steps to make reforms and ensure components were aware of spending policies to improve accounting and reporting requirements for conferences. And at the beginning of this year, the Attorney General issued a memo ordering the reduction of spending, including the suspension of all non-essential conferences. In fact, in the first six months of FY2011, overall conference spending has been reduced.”

In reaction to the audit, the White House has ordered all agencies and departments to conduct a review of conference spending policies and has said that conference spending must be approved by deputy secretaries until controls are in place to prevent excessive spending.