26 September 2011

The government did NOT purchase $16 muffins

Just as you can't "unsee" something, once something gets into the blogosphere, it probably will never leave.  Such will be the case with the story that circulated earlier this week; here's the report via the Washington Post:
Where does a muffin cost more than $16?
At a government conference, it turns out.

They may run just over $2 at your average coffee shop, but the Justice Department paid seven to eight times as much at a gathering it held at the Capital Hilton in Washington. And on Tuesday, the muffins seemed well on their way to joining the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seat as symbols of wasteful spending...

The reaction was blistering — and bipartisan. “Sixteen-dollar muffins and $600,000 for event planning services are what make Americans cynical about government and why they are demanding change,’’ said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing. People are outraged, and rightly so.’’
People would be right to be outraged - if the story were true.  I was going to blog it too, but was too busy and just bookmarked it.  By the time I got back to it yesterday, I had found a followup article in Mother Jones indicating that there were no $16 muffins:
Is it really true? So I went to the DOJ Inspector General's website, got the report, and searched for "muffin." The following paragraph looks fairly impenetrable, but go ahead and plow through it anyway:
Considering the EOIR reported that at least 534 people received refreshments at its 2009 Legal Training Conference in Washington, D.C., it spent an average of $14.74 per attendee per day on food and beverages—just above the $14.72 JMD limit for refreshments. We credit the EOIR for implementing the following controls to reduce food and beverage costs: (1) it provided just refreshments and not full meals, (2) it ordered fewer refreshments than the total number of reported attendees, and (3) it received 15 gallons of coffee, 30 gallons of iced tea, and 200 pieces of fruit for free. However, many individual food and beverage items listed on conference invoices and paid by the EOIR were very costly. The EOIR spent $4,200 on 250 muffins and $2,880 on 300 cookies and brownies. By itemizing these costs, we determined that, with service and gratuity, muffins cost over $16 each and cookies and brownies cost almost $10 each.
So did DOJ really pay $16 for muffins? Of course not. In fact, it's obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they provided. 
I also went to the pdf at the link, and I agree that the "muffin number" is a misinterpretation of the data.  You could also infer that from the aggregate cost of $14.74 per person per day for food; if the muffins were $16, then each conference attendant received only a muffin a day.

Kudos to Kevin Drum at Mother Jones for tracking down the source data.

Now we have to find something else to be outraged about.


  1. All it takes is a few astro-turfers repeating it.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Heck, there never were really any $600.00 toilet seats either.

  4. Sadly, not many people will bother to investigate. Whoever gets in "first with the worst" gets believed and passed on. Another sad commentary on our society.


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