The Great $16 Muffin Myth

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 5:37 PM PDT

I've been reading all day about the $16 muffins the Department of Justice served at one of its conferences, and I finally got curious about this. Is it really true? So I went to the DOJ Inspector General's website, got the report, and searched for "muffin." The following paragraph looks fairly impenetrable, but go ahead and plow through it anyway:

Considering the EOIR reported that at least 534 people received refreshments at its 2009 Legal Training Conference in Washington, D.C., it spent an average of $14.74 per attendee per day on food and beverages—just above the $14.72 JMD limit for refreshments. We credit the EOIR for implementing the following controls to reduce food and beverage costs: (1) it provided just refreshments and not full meals, (2) it ordered fewer refreshments than the total number of reported attendees, and (3) it received 15 gallons of coffee, 30 gallons of iced tea, and 200 pieces of fruit for free. However, many individual food and beverage items listed on conference invoices and paid by the EOIR were very costly. 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.

So did DOJ really pay $16 for muffins? Of course not. In fact, it's obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they provided. 

This is unremarkable. In fact, I'm here to tell you that this happens All. The. Time. I've been involved in what feels like a thousand conferences of this kind, and I'd be shocked if it happened any other way. Hell, I'm surprised DOJ even got that much of a breakdown. Far more commonly, your event person negotiates what kind of refreshments you'll get, and the invoice ends up looking something like this:

Refreshment table (bev/morn/aft) — 5 days....................$39,500

None of this is to say that DOJ didn't overspend on its conferences. In fact, it sounds like they did—though in some cases this was just an artifact of applying overhead costs to the food instead of accounting for it separately. But the $16 muffin? That's a myth. It'll never die now that it's been delivered to posterity thanks to some enthusiast in the OIG who broke out a calculator and mistakenly assumed they could calculate actual costs this way, but it's still a myth.

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