GOP blasts $1 million Hawaii conference for judges in wake of GSA scandal

Two senior Senate Republicans on Monday blasted plans by judges in the 9th Circuit to hold a conference in Hawaii this August that they said could run up a tab of $1 million or more, and includes a schedule of sport fishing, yoga, surfing lessons and Zumba dancing lessons.

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) last week wrote to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski to warn that the Hawaii meeting does not appear to fit with the 9th Circuit's own opinion that the federal budget is tight. The letter was sent just weeks after Republicans took the General Services Administration (GSA) to task for a notorious $800,000 conference that led several GSA officials to resign.

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"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. The letter adds that while conference organizers note that government funds are not to be used for recreation, the conference program "reads more like a vacation than a business trip to discuss the means of improving the administration of justice."

According to a website announcing the conference, the meeting is authorized by law to consider "the business of the courts and advising means of improving the administration of justice within the circuit." According to the schedule, it opens Sunday, Aug. 12, with a golf tournament, and includes a tennis tournament on Tuesday and an ice cream social and garden tour on Wednesday, among various meetings and panels held at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa.

Grassley and Sessions said on Monday that the meeting is another example of extreme government waste, and called on the 9th Circuit to reconsider it.

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"A judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise," Grassley said. "It's especially tone-deaf to plan a pricey conference after the GSA 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. "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."

While the letter strongly implies the location of the conference should be changed, it also presses Kozinski for more information about the conference, including who will attend, how the per diem allowances are determined and whether spouses and family members can attend. The letter asks that this information be provided by June 15.

The letter also asks for all information on 9th Circuit conferences from 2008 to 2011, including all expenses and costs.