Postal officials defend $13,500 steak dinner

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Sat, 2008-04-12 09:48.
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WASHINGTON - When the U.S. Postal Service rang up a $13,500 tab at an Orlando steakhouse, it spared no expense during a five-hour meal that government investigators are calling "abusive" in its extravagance.

The order -- charged to government credit cards -- included more than $3,000 for drinks, more than $500 for shrimp cocktails and almost $900 for mini crab cakes, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigate arm of Congress.

And then there's the steak.

"The better question is probably what they didn't order," GAO investigator Gregory Kutz said Wednesday. He counted 81 entrees -- including just about every kind of steak -- from the 2006 feast at Ruth's Chris Steak House on Sand Lake Road.

The GAO cited the Orlando meal as part of an overarching audit into abuse of government credit cards. The report, released this week, found 41 percent of purchases reviewed by the GAO from 2005 to 2006 failed "basic internal control standards."

These include safety measures such as getting proper authorization or having someone other than the cardholder review the expense. A lack of oversight led to abuses such as embezzling or odd expenses such as lingerie, electronic equipment and, in one case, $77,700 worth of expensive suits bought by the Pentagon.

But U.S. Postal Service officials said it was unfair to compare the dinner with other abuses cited in the GAO report. "This is not taxpayer money. What we spend is what we make. The Postal Service is funded solely by our products and services," said Gerry McKiernan, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.

Which includes stamps, countered Kutz, author of the GAO report. "For the most part, my stamps helped pay for the dinner," he said. "Every time you lick a stamp, think about Ruth's Chris."

McKiernan said the dinner was intended to help woo corporate clients of the U.S. Postal Service, which competes with carriers such as UPS and FedEx for business. "It was just the opinion of the GAO that the cost was excessive," he said.

These included liquid expenses such as Courvoisier, Belvedere and Johnnie Walker Gold Label, according to the GAO report. "Ruth's Chris is a very fine restaurant, and at a fine restaurant, you find fine products," McKiernan said.

Neither the GAO nor the U.S. Postal Service would release a list of those present. McKiernan said the dinner was hosted by four postal groups from California that were in Orlando for a conference. The networking groups, called Postal Customer Councils, include both postal and corporate representatives.

More than 100 people were invited to the April 2, 2006, dinner, although U.S. Postal Service officials said only 95 attended. The GAO estimated 81 attendees, based on 81 orders of salads and entrees, when they factored an average of more than $160 per person.

McKiernan said the meal was intended to be an efficient way for the four postal groups -- from Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Ana -- to meet with their corporate clients at once. "It would be convenient for everyone in terms of travel and time to combine four dinners into one," he said.

Ernie Brogdon, a former officer with the group from San Diego, said it was not uncommon to host these dinners in conjunction with a conference. "If they have a good group of people going, they will host a nice banquet dinner. San Diego used to do that all the time," he said.

[Via - Sun-Sentinel

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