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Updated: 12:51 p.m.
With an eye toward saving taxpayer dollars and the recent scandal at the General Services Administration, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) are questioning the wisdom of a judicial conference scheduled for August in Maui, Hawaii.
“We are concerned about the overall cost of this conference and do not believe that discussions about the administration of justice would be less successful were they held somewhere other than a spa and resort in Hawaii,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Grassley is ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sessions is ranking member of the Budget Committee.
“Technology is so advanced that people are earning college degrees online and soldiers serving halfway across the world use Skype with their families at home,” Grassley said in a release. “Likewise, a judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise. It’s especially tone-deaf to plan a pricey conference after the [Government Services Administration] debacle. The taxpayers can’t sustain this kind of spending, and they shouldn’t have to. The court should re-examine whether this is the best use of tax dollars.”
“This conference is further evidence the federal government is in a state of financial chaos,” Sessions said in the release. “How can anyone in Washington ask for more taxes when this culture of excess continues? Americans struggling to pay their bills are tired of watching the government throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime. They are tired of watching entire sectors of government behave in a fashion totally disconnected from the reality of our perilous financial state. At this time of fiscal crisis, America needs leadership that will restore accountability and ensure a disciplined budget is adopted at last.”
The 2012 Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference is scheduled for Aug. 13-16 at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa in Hawaii, according to the court’s website. The conference is authorized by law “for the purpose of considering the business of the courts and advising means of improving the administration of justice within the circuit.”
Attendees include judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district and bankruptcy courts in nine western states and two Pacific island territories; representatives of the federal bar practicing in these courts; court staff and special guests, according to the website. Federal government funding allocated to the 9th Circuit for the conference is used to provide the educational program and to conduct business meetings. Government funds are not used for any recreational or sporting activities, according to the site. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito are also scheduled to attend, according to the conference website.
But despite the disclaimer, lawmakers have been looking for red flags on conference spending following an $823,000 Las Vegas-area conference the GSA put on for 300 of its employees in 2010. It is alleged that Jeff Neely, a top GSA administrator, spent $2,700 in taxpayer money on a party in a hotel suite and hired a clown and a mind reader to perform. At a House hearing last month, Neely declined to answer questions about the conference and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“Assuming a four night stay, even at the ‘run of the house’ rate, this would cost at least $920 for each judge who attends,” the Senators wrote in their letter. “At this rate, assuming that attendance is consistent with the 2010 conference held in Maui, which drew almost 700 participants, accommodations for the conference would cost more than $500,000.”
The conference website lists the government per diem rate for Maui as $289 per day. It lists “150 percent of per diem” as $433 per day, and the “alternative daily maximum per diem for judges” as $397 per day.
The letter also points to several extraneous events that run the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars, including sport fishing and a golf tournament.
“Through out the conference there are other activities unrelated to the business of the court, including yoga, surfing, stand-up paddle board lessons, Zumba (a Latin-inspired dance program), a tennis tournament, a day trip and tour of Up-country Maui, a Gemini Catamaran snorkel trip, and an activity called ‘the Aloha Experience,” the letter said. “While the [court’s web]site makes it clear that government funds are not to be used for any recreational or sporting activities and that court-related matters will be substantively considered, the program reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice.”
Grassley and Sessions said approximately 700 people participated in the 2010 conference in Maui, and travel costs were $657,000.
The combined travel costs for the previous two conferences before that, held in Monterey, Calif., and Sun Valley, Idaho, were $860,000, Grassley and Sessions said.
An email sent to conference organizers seeking comment was not immediately returned.
The letter contained a list of 18 questions, about half of which inquired about past conference practices, attendees and expenses.
The rest of the questions centered on this summer’s conference, including “Why was the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa selected as the venue?”
The letter asks for responses to the questions no later than June 15, “before any additional funds are expended towards this conference ... so that we might have a better understanding of why it is necessary to submit this conference bill to taxpayers.”