The $16 muffin: Overheated or not, more scrutiny is baking

The hunt for more examples of government waste is on once again, with prey both large and small.

If you thought the outrage over the Justice Department’s alleged $16 muffins was a bit overheated, you are not alone. But you can bet that in these tough economic times, there will be more federal auditors scrutinizing every invoice to the last crumb.

Justice got into hot water after its Office of the Inspector General released an audit Sept. 20 reporting that the overpriced muffins were consumed at a departmental event at the Capital Hilton. The audit got instant media attention and generated outraged commentary. Jerry Markon of the Washington Post said the $16 muffin was on its way to joining the $600 Pentagon toilet seat as a prime example of wasteful government spending.

Meanwhile, Wyatt Kash, writing in the Huffington Post, said the kerfuffle over $16 muffins might have been half-baked and asked whether anyone had checked the price of baked goods served at high-quality hotels lately. In expensive conference rooms such as those in Washington, D.C., the cost of food and beverages has always been unreasonably high, Kash said.

Then the Hilton hotel chain came out with a press release explaining that the $16 muffin was a myth based on a misread invoice. The $16 charge was the cost for the entire breakfast, not just the muffins.

That did not seem to deter the media and the public, who were still chewing like hungry predators on the $16 muffin idea and feasting on the notion that any example of government waste — even the tiniest morsel — was fair game for second-guessing.

But was that fair? The Poynter Institute tut-tutted that although many journalists reported the Hilton’s myth-busting information, more did not. By the time Justice's inspector general issued a correction Sept. 30, the whole episode had left a bad taste.

The hunt for more examples of government waste is on once again, with the White House targeting multibillion-dollar fraud and abuse cases, the rest of the pack chasing smaller prey, and no one knowing just how far or how low the hunt will go.

The drive to cut costs is reaching one of the Obama administration’s highest-profile open-government initiatives, Data.gov. The 2-year-old website distributes hundreds of thousands of federal datasets to the public for free and has been acclaimed as a prime example of transparency around the world. But advocates say it has been difficult to convince Congress of its worth. In September, Senate appropriators maintained major cuts to the site's funding.

On a larger scale, the White House is getting ready to release its much-anticipated Do Not Pay List of people and entities that are ineligible to receive federal funding. In fiscal 2010, the government avoided $3.8 billion and recaptured $687 million in improper payments as a result of a concerted effort to trim such payments, White House officials said.

Even with numbers like that, $16 muffins are tidbits that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the story of a tasty treat as an example of government waste was a natural in these Tea Party times.

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