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Duly Noted

Friday, Sep 23, 2011, 3:20 pm

Is Chuck Grassley Making a Muffin out of a Molehill?

By Lindsay Beyerstein

By Kitsunebabe, Creative Commons.

When I made fun of the Department of Justice for serving $16 muffins, I was unwittingly spreading an urban legend, or at best a deeply misleading factoid. It's important to set the record straight, especially because Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is demagoguing all over himself, demanding that the muffin-buyer be fired.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones went back and checked the paper trail. He found that the snack of "$16 muffins" and "$10 brownies" was the hotel's way of itemizing the total cost of a catered snack for over 500 people.

For the cost of the muffins and brownies, the hotel threw in coffee service, iced tea service, and fresh fruit "for free," according to a report by DOJ's Inspector General, not to mention the other costs of serving a hotel snack such as linens, plates, cups, setup, and takedown.

The total cost of refreshments, per person, per day, at that conference was $14.74, just over the federal limit of $14.72. It sounds like someone gave the hotel a per capita budget  and the hotel delivered a package that fit the budget.

Is DOJ spending too much on catered conferences? Maybe. They spent $490,000 on ten events over the course of two years.

Is hotel catering a ripoff? Definitely. This is what happens when the private sector has a monopoly. Hotels can charge an arm and a leg for coffee service because they don't allow outside refreshments.

Regardless, the $16 muffin is a myth.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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