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Federal Judges' Maui Conference Takes Heat From GOP Senators

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By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON, May 21 (Reuters) - The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' upcoming conference on a Hawaiian island sounds more like "a vacation than a business trip" to discuss the administration of justice, two Republican U.S. lawmakers charged on Monday.

In a letter to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, Senators Charles Grassley and Jeff Sessions wrote that Congress has an obligation to guard against "waste, fraud and abuse" and demanded details about the conference, set for Aug. 13-16 in Maui.

The letter came in the wake of the disclosure of a lavish, four-day conference in Las Vegas in 2010 involving the General Services Administration, an independent agency of the federal government, that cost $823,000 and featured fine food, a comic, a clown and talent show.

Democrats and Republicans denounced the GSA conference as a spending scandal, and quickly passed legislation to better guard against such gatherings.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, covers eight western states plus Hawaii. It stood by its upcoming conference, describing it as an important gathering.

Cathy Catterson, the court's executive, wrote that the 9th Circuit understands its responsibilities as a "steward of public funds" and that its conference is "authorized by law" to improve "the administration of justice."

In a statement, Catterson also said recreational activities - such as fishing, golf, yoga and surfing - that will be offered between working sessions will be paid for by attendees, not the government.

Based on a 2010 gathering by the court in Maui that drew 700 participants, the senators wrote that accommodations alone for the upcoming conference should cost upward of $500,000.

Their letter was dated May 18 and released on Monday, along with statements by both senators.

"This conference is further evidence the federal government is in a state of financial chaos," Sessions said.

Grassley said: "A judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise."

Republicans in Congress have long tangled with members of the 9th Circuit, who have consistently issued some of the most liberal rulings of any of the federal appeals courts.

Grassley and Sessions asked the chief judge to respond by June 15 to 18 questions before any additional funds are spent for the conference.

The conference is described on the court's website.

The senators wrote that "the site makes clear that government funds are not to be used for any recreational or sporting activities and that court-related matters will be substantially considered."

Regardless, they added, "the programs read more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice." (Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Paul Simao)

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