Growing up in an Italian-American household and having sampled my share of meatballs, I can honestly say that I’ve never tasted one so good it was worth $4.

Apparently, I’ve never been fortunate enough  to attend a conference staged by the Justice Department, where the $4 meatballs are only exceeded by $25 snack packages and “movie nights.”

According to a recently released audit report, the DOJ spent a total of $7 million to plan, host or send employees to some 10 conferences over the past two years.

For those of you like me, who never tire of reports that chronicle excessive government spending, how would you like to fill out a T&E with the following charges and hope your accounts payable department doesn’t notice?

• $13,000 on cookies and brownies for a four-day conference in 2005;

• $60,000 for butterfly shrimp and lobster skewers for a July 2006 event;

• a total of $1.4 million to send DOJ representatives to a Denver conference, which included a $143,000 charge for microphone rentals.

The audit also uncovered the fact that nearly three quarters of the employees who attended said conferences, put in for meal reimbursements. Anyone who’s ever filled out an expense report knows that practice is called “double dipping” by any other name.

I’d bet that if folks in the private sector filled out such a report there would be a large cardboard box and beefy security guard greeting them when they arrived one morning.

It should be noted, that one of the top folks in the Office of Justice Programs - the agency charged with approving conference expenses – resigned. However, it was not clear if the departure stemmed from the audit report.

In its most delicate government-speak, the audit report concluded that the expenses for the most part were “allowable” but found ways to make future conferences better and “more cost-efficient.”
Somehow, I’m unconvinced that the phrases “government” and “cost-efficient” are ones that will ever be reconciled.

True, the recent DOJ audit lacks the cachet of past government expenditures, i.e. $200 screwdrivers and the now-infamous $600 toilet seat, but the skeptic in me cannot believe that these types of excesses are limited to the DOJ.

If this was just a conference division, what would we be faced with say, under a universal heath care system?

A $4 meatball might look like a bargain.


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