An Ethics Muffin Wreck

Tim Matheson in “Animal House,” as “Justice Department Inspector General”

In the end, it was Ethics Bob who saw the light first. Responding to last month’s Ethics Alarms post about the Justice Department’s inspector general flagging extravagant costs for conferences, Bob Stone, a business ethics expert and blogger who comes from a long career with the Defense Department, wrote this:

“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.”

Sure enough, after the rest of the media and blogosphere had vented about “Muffingate” (one more thing to hold against Richard Nixon, the “—gate” cliché), Bob’s assessment was correct.  Three days after the study was released, Hilton Hotels, which hosted the conference at which the offending muffins were served, clarified that the $16 charge was really for a full continental breakfast plus service, gratuity charges and tax. Instead of a detailed invoice, the hotel just listed the charge as “muffins.” In addition, the cost of the breakfast  reflected some of the services and accommodations the Justice Department wasn’t officially charged for, such as meeting rooms, “including a 450-seat ballroom and more than a dozen workshop and breakout rooms each of the five days of the conference.”

I don’t think this justifies a full-Litella (“Never mind!”), because I continue to question the decision to hold outside conferences during a period when the country has to cut far more essential budget items. Nevertheless, I have to ask: is there anyone or any institution in the government we can trust to do a good, fair, competent job? I thought that inspector generals were trustworthy, because they are supposed to be independent watchdogs on waste, corruption and abuse. I used to be a meeting planner; I am quite aware of how hotels bill conferences and conventions. When the IG report said that the Justice Department purchased $16 dollar muffins, I assumed that before the report would make public such an apparently outrageous waste of funds, it would make sure that this is what the muffins, and only the muffins, cost. Such a report is red meat to the press, political pundits, Republicans, and ethics bloggers. It is incompetent and irresponsible for the inspector general to allow a misleading figure that blinks “WASTE! EXTRAVAGANCE! IRRESPONSIBILITY!” in brilliant neon to be released without a full and clear explanation. Why didn’t it check with Hilton before making such an accusation?

Ethics Bob knew why. The quote that comes to mind is from “Animal House,” when Otter tries to comfort

Stephen Furst in “Animal House” as…me?Flounder, whose brother’s car has been wrecked by his fraternity brothers. “You fucked up,” Otter tells the weeping Flounder. “You trusted us!”

For the Inspector General to be this cavalier and incompetent in its work only increases the deficit of trust between the public and its government.  Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is leading a Senate charge against waste, was not dissuaded from his quest by the clarifications, saying, “…The bottom line is conference expenses are getting out of hand, and the Justice Department is spending way more on conferences than it did before.” The Senator reiterated that  in the first year of the Obama administration, conference spending rose 53 percent from the previous year. “When you get into paying for event planners and $32 snack packs including Cracker Jacks, the conference bills go up quickly,” Grassley said. “The Justice Department should realize the fiscal realities of our time and rededicate itself to cutting conference spending instead of nitpicking an inspector general report that’s a wake-up call about government spending.”

I have no argument with any of this. Nevertheless, the public should be able to understand the extent of the problem using accurate information, not careless, misleading factoids designed to stampede the press. We should all be able to trust inspector generals not to release misleading and incomplete information. We cannot, however.

I never should have doubted you, Ethics Bob!

7 thoughts on “An Ethics Muffin Wreck

  1. Good grief, anyone who has ever booked a hotel for a meeting with catering knew immediately that the “$16 muffin” was the per-head cost for the full continental breakfast or mid-morning snack. I can’t believe it took a whole week for that to come out via the media. $16/head is pretty good, too, I’ve paid more than that!

  2. This is a bulls**t reenactment to the nth degree… any no bid contractor and its “cost +” standard operating procedures with the usual suspects of Halliburton, KBR etc. etc. shows the mock outrage for 16$ “muffins” but ignores hummers that get flat tires or oil changes and are burned on the spot and charged back plus 20% + markup back to the American taxpayers.

    Link – Iraq for Sale:

  3. I largely agree with this post. But here’s something I’d want to see more information on:

    The Senator reiterated that in the first year of the Obama administration, conference spending rose 53 percent from the previous year.

    Is it fair to compare the last year of an outgoing administration to the first year of an incoming administration? I don’t know, but it seems to me plausible that incoming administrations have a lot more need for conferences than outgoing administrations — thousands of policies are potentially about to be changed, staffs and priorities are changing, etc., and all of this might reasonably create more conference work.

    Maybe it is terribly wasteful, but it’s not self-evidently so without more information.

    • The second part of that is that the delineator doesn’t delineate what it claims to. Large conferences often take many months of planning to pull off. At least the first half of the first year of Obama’s administration was filled with conferences planned during Bushes administration.

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