Muffin update: Not $16. Coffee still $8.24 per cup

Posted Oct. 29, 2011, at 5:22 a.m.

WASHINGTON — 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 Capitol Hilton in Washington.

On Friday, acting Justice Department Inspector General Cynthia 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 said the entire breakfast cost about $16 per person, including taxes and service charges.

“The department did not pay $16 per muffin,” Schnedar wrote, saying that she 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 austerity and belt-tightening 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 spends too much on conferences. 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 actually feasted on a continental breakfast spread. It included fruit, coffee, juice and the muffins, Hilton said.

A Hilton spokesman did not have an immediate comment Friday.

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

At the Office of Management and Budget, a spokeswoman was not immediately available Friday, but the office has said the review of conference expenditures will culminate in a December meeting about cutting 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 Lew wrote in a Sept. 21 memo announcing the review. “Now more than ever, as families across the country are tightening their belts, we cannot afford duplicative programs, out-dated and inefficient processes, or wasteful spending decisions.

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.

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