HUFFINGTON POST
09/22/2011 02:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

$16 Muffins, Which May Not Be Real, Get Justice Department In Trouble

On Tuesday, in what must surely be the most controversial muffin-related story since paperclips were found lodged inside athletes' muffins at the 2008 Olympics, it was revealed that the Justice Department had spent egregiously high sums of money on catering at a series of conferences over the past few years.

There was a whole host of over-priced items: $5 meatballs, $7.50 beef canapes, $8 coffees. But the sound-byte everyone took from the story was the $16 muffin.

Journalists and auditors arrived at the startling price when they discovered that 250 muffins at a hotel conference had cost the Department $4,200. Many were outraged, and pointed to the muffins as a prime example of governmental waste. Senator Chuck Grassley even said that whoever was responsible should be fired. Obama, for his part, seems to be complying. Obama Foodorama reports that POTUS has ordered a systematic review of all conference spending, and put Vice President Biden in charge of oversight.

It sounds like the new oversight is worth it; the government undoubtedly wastes a lot of money on catering and hospitality. But there's a fantastic irony at the heart of the entire story. Mother Jones's Kevin Drum has a great explanation of why the $16 muffins didn't really cost $16. The calculation was based on the invoice price of the muffins -- which included overhead and service charges for the use of the conference space.

UPDATE: Peter Yost of the Associated Press just wrote a story denouncing the idea of the $16 muffin as well; interviews with Hilton indicate that the apparent $16 price included free drinks, service and fruit. Here's the full AP story:

WASHINGTON — The government did not pay $16 apiece for breakfast muffins at a Justice Department conference, no matter what the department's inspector general thinks.

So says Hilton Worldwide, which hosted the 2009 legal training conference in Washington. Even the IG's own report issued this week acknowledges that for the price paid, they also got some free fruit and drinks.

Hilton Worldwide, which manages and franchises hotels including the Capital Hilton where the conference took place, says the price included not only breakfast baked goods but also fresh fruit, coffee, tea, soft drinks, tax and tips. It says the report misinterpreted its invoices, which often use shorthand and don't reflect the full menu and service provided.

The IG's report allocates $4,200 for the muffins but also noted 15 gallons of complimentary coffee, 30 gallons of complimentary ice tea and 200 pieces of free fruit included in the overall price of $39,360.

The IG says that the total cost per person at the reception was $14.74 – 2 cents over the allowable Justice Department limit. Totaling up the items in the IG's report, the 534 attendees over five days were given 1,150 pastries, 1,350 pieces of candy and fruit, 1,250 cups of coffee and tea and 250 soft drinks.

The IG's audit of excessive spending at 10 Justice Department conferences was one of those news stories that make the public sit up and take notice. Once again, the profligate government was overspending. But it wasn't billions. Or even millions. It was muffins at $16 apiece, according to the IG's office.

The report referenced the $16 muffins half a dozen times and it said their cost was one of many food items that "appeared extravagant and potentially wasteful."

Not so, Hilton Worldwide said in a statement Thursday.

"In Washington, the contracted breakfast included fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity, for an inclusive price of $16 per person," Hilton Worldwide said in a statement.

"Dining receipts are often abbreviated and do not reflect the full pre-contracted menu and service provided, as is the case with recent media reports of breakfast items approved for some government meetings," Hilton Worldwide's statement added.

On Thursday night, IG spokesman Jay Lerner said that "we stand by our report."

In its report, the IG's office said the cost of the muffins was one of many food items that "appeared extravagant and potentially wasteful."

"Many individual food and beverage items listed on conference invoices and paid by the" Executive Office for Immigration Review for a legal training conference "were very costly," said the IG report. "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."