Why Doesn’t This Government Ethics Alarm Go Off…Or Does It Even Exist?

"Let's see...cheese on a Ritz, or Beef Wellington...Hell, let's spring for the Wellington--everyone OK with that?"

I just don’t understand it. I never have.

In a report released today, the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed that U.S. Justice Department agencies spent absurd amounts for lavish food at conferences, in one case serving $16 muffins, in another dishing out beef Wellington appetizers that cost $7.32 per serving, and in yet another, a March 2009 conference of the Office on Violence Against Women, serving Cracker Jacks, popcorn and candy bars at a single break to the tune of $32 per person. Yum!

The abuse isn’t unique to the Obama Administration, but it has gotten worse. The inspector general reviewed a sample of ten Justice Department conferences held between October 2007 and September 2009 at a cost of $4.4 million, a period that included the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. The Justice Department spent $73.3 million on conferences in fiscal 2009, compared with $47.8 million a year earlier, according to the report.

“Some conferences featured costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending,” the report said.

To be concise, how dare they? How can government employees treat taxpayer funds so callously? Why doesn’t anyone in the chain of authority have an ethics alarm go off and announce, “Wait a minute! We have a budget crisis! We can’t pay our bills! It’s insane to spend money for our own comfort and entertainment like this!”

Nobody did, however. Nobody has for a long while. The waste, lack of responsibility and arrogance is equally galling whether it was Republicans or Democrats spending money on treats, but it is certainly more mystifying to read about Beef Wellington appetizers being consumed on the taxpayer’s dime by an administration that is posing as a the foe of the wealthy—you know, the only people who can afford Beef Wellington. Other than government employees, of course.

I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand how people who work for the government can come to ignore their duty to expend public resources responsibly. I don’t understand why it takes an inspector general to point out that this is wrong, and I don’t understand national leadership that needs an independent audit to remind it that such waste is intolerable.

I do understand this: It is indicative of arrogance and lack of responsibility from top to bottom. And this: if you think extravagant White House dinners, events and vacations don’t encourage such waste, you are deluded, or work for MSNBC.

I also understand something else. Such reports bolster the arguments of who believe that the government is not an efficient or responsible steward for public funds, and that it cannot and must not be trusted with large projects and complex policy initiatives without constant oversight and strict limitations.

I wonder if those currently running our nation understand that.

I doubt it.

14 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t This Government Ethics Alarm Go Off…Or Does It Even Exist?

  1. Some minor details: The budget for fiscal year 2009 is under Bush, not Obama. Obama wasn’t inaugurated until nearly a 1/3 of the way through that fiscal year. It’s not a straight Bush-Obama comparison. The number and size of conferences should also go into the comparison of the 2008 and 2009 numbers. If there were twice as many conferences/attendees, the relative price would be lower.

    I’m not saying that the waste hasn’t gone up under Obama, but from the statistics listed, one cannot make such a statement. I’d also be interested in seeing if there’s a bump when new administrations take over. The civil servants might think they can take advantage of new officials, or vacant high posts.

    Oh, also, the $7.32 serving for beef wellington appetizer seems like its a decent price for that. The $32 for prepackaged junk food? That’s just ridiculous…even in Manhattan or Vegas. Give me 4.5 beef wellington appetizers instead as a snack.

    • Regardless, no government meeting should even consider serving Beef Wellington appetizers. Come on! I don’t care if that is a “decent price” — it’s obscene, pure and simple. We’re all supposed to tighten our belts and let the government do that kind of stuff? Where else is all the unaccounted for overspending by government — executive and legislative?

  2. I’m not saying that government doesn’t need to spend $32 a head on cracker jacks, but what little I know of conference planning, those prices are what everyone pays. A $32 snack break (which probably includes tax and other hotel charges) is not unusual. It doesn’t make any sense to me, as I only know enough about food and beverage costs to be dangerous, but it’s not unusual. A $7.32 charge for beef wellington has got to be a typo, particularly when a group is usually charged $4.50 for a bottle of water. We usually budget at least $60 per person for a dinner that would include a dish that fancy. At the very LEAST.

    I guess my point is that, given the examples you use, the government is not going above and beyond what any other group pays for snacks or dinners for an event. And if that $7.32 charge for beef wellington is not a typo, they are paying less.

  3. Excuse me but why are we feeding them at all? Let them bring their own lunchs.

    As for these conferences , in theis electronic digital age their is no reason for everyone to get together in person.

    • Bill, have you ever been to a conference? The informational and Q&A sessions are only part of the benefit. I’ve only been to a couple, but I’ve learned more from interacting with my fellow attendees than from the sessions themselves.

        • I sponsored conferences for base commanders when I was at the Pentagon. They found them so valuable that when I announced that I was canceling one scheduled for the 1990 deadline for Operation Desert Storm, the commanders raised hell, insisting that I cancel the cancellation.

          Some conferences are like jack says, some are not.

        • While I agree that not all conferences may be necessary or useful, I was directly responding to the belief that the electronic digital age replaces everything that occurs at a live conference.

          • Well, I sure have a conflict of interest, since I specialize in live, rather than video, conferences. And I certainly don’t deny there can be good ones—I’ve just never been an attendee at one. Of course, the conferences I present at are beyond sublime. Or so I’m told….

      • No I have not, and I’m sure that you are right that meeting face to face is better. But when the economy is tanking like it is, I think things like this should be cut back severely, if not eliminated.

  4. As a sometimes victim of smear-by-IG, I’d recommend turning down the outrage. Just as there never was a $400 hammer, there probably wasn’t a $16 muffin. I’ve been involved with a lot of government conferences—I’ve sponsored a few—and my experience is that the people are as diligent with expenses an informed taxpayers would like them to be.

    IG’s records are built on how many outrages they turn up, and they often manufacture them.

  5. The heart of the problem here (and it’s not the least bit a partisan issue) is that the system as it exists today active discourages the precise behavior that you’re expecting.

    Instead, government managers are strongly encouraged to make sure they spend “their” entire budget each year, otherwise that budget will be cut the following year. So instead of encouraging thriftiness or (horrors!) rewarding managers for operating UNDER budget, we have the institutionalization of so-called “end-of-year money” and the spending orgy that occurs at the end of every fiscal year.

    If I were running for office, one of my platforms would be “No tax increases until End-of-Year Money as a concept is eliminated”. I’d lose, of course, but introducing the truth about EoYM into the popular culture would be TOTALLY worth it.

    –Dwayne

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