GOP senators question judicial conference on Maui

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2012 8:11 PM
GOP senators question judicial conference on Maui

Hawaii officials defended the islands Tuesday as a place of business amid criticism from two key U.S. senators who questioned the decision to hold an upcoming conference for federal judges on Maui.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, say the planned meetings of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are excessive and strike the wrong tone in a time of government budget cuts.

"Americans struggling to pay their bills," Sessions said Monday, "are tired of watching the government throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime."

Hawaii's U.S. senators and the head of the state's tourism department responded Tuesday.

The state is much more than "sunsets and beautiful beaches," Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye said. Inouye said he resents "the implication that no serious discussion can take place in Hawaii."

Hawaii Tourism Authority President and CEO Mike McCartney said the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu proved recently that "in addition to being a world-class leisure destination, the Hawaiian islands are a place to host productive and quality business meetings."

Sessions and Grassley on Monday questioned the need to hold the August conference at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa, which offers activities including surfing lessons, snorkeling, yoga and Zumba.

Sessions, a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said people are fed up with "watching entire sectors of government behave in a fashion totally disconnected from the reality of our perilous financial state."

A court official defended the plans, saying recently that lodging and airfare costs are comparable to mainland venues. Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive Cathy A. Catterson also said any sporting or recreational activities are to be paid for by individuals and are not reimbursable by government funds.

Catterson added that such conferences are authorized by law and provide "an exceptional educational program and the opportunity to conduct numerous business meetings that further circuit governance."

Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka said Tuesday the state "falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit and legal issues in Hawaii deserve as much of a spotlight as any other state or territory in the circuit."

Grassley, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, had said it's "tone-deaf" to plan an expensive conference after the controversy surrounding the General Services Administration's lavish 2010 conference in Las Vegas. A judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without traveling to an "island paradise," he said.

Catterson says a recent letter from Sessions and Grassley is being reviewed and that a further response will be forthcoming.

The GOP senators also note that a 9th Circuit conference on Maui with almost 700 participants in 2010 cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in travel and accommodation expenses.

The court serves Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority spent $8.8 million last year on efforts to lure business travelers through marketing and direct incentives. The state spent five times that amount targeting leisure travelers.