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GOP Blasts Million Dollar Judicial Conference in Hawaii

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In a scolding letter, two Republican senators blasted the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for holding a lavish tax-payer funded judicial conference scheduled for this August in Maui, Hawaii, that “reads more like a vacation than a business trip.”

“We are concerned that using the tax dollars of the American people to pay for a conference of this sort is not the most appropriate use of funds,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., wrote in a letter sent last week to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

The court, which is based in San Francisco, has jurisdiction over nine states, including Hawaii.

The judicial conference is scheduled for Aug. 13 to Aug. 16  and features sport fishing, a golf tournament, yoga, surging lessons, stand-up paddle board lessons, Zumba dance classes, tennis, a day trip to the Upcountry Maui, a snorkel trip and an activity called the “Aloha Experience.”

The senators’ complaint comes after the General Services Administration was embarrassed for spending more than $800,000 on a conference in Las Vegas.

In light of the GSA scandal the senators call this “tone deaf” for the government to “throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime.”

The Ninth Circuit defends the conference as essential and not wasteful.

“As part of the Third Branch of government, the Ninth Circuit is fully aware of its responsibilities as a steward of public funds,” Circuit and Court of Appeals Executive Cathy A. Catterson said in a statement to ABC News Monday. “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.’ The conference fully adheres to these goals, providing an exceptional educational program and the opportunity to conduct numerous business meetings that further circuit governance.”

The website for the conference makes clear that “government funds are not used for any recreational or sporting activities,” and Catterson emphasized that any sporting and recreational activities, “are paid for by individuals and are not reimbursable.”

The senators note this in their letter, but question the seriousness of the conference given the heavy schedule of recreational events.

“While the site makes 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,” they wrote.

The senators question the location choice, with Maui being such a pricey vacation destination.

“We 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 letter says, pointing out that taxpayer funded airfare and hotel stay may be better spent were the conference held in another location like Billings, Mont., or elsewhere on the mainland.

“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. “Likewise, a judicial circuit court should be capable of using technology to share information without requiring a trip to an island paradise … the court should re-examine whether this is the best use of tax dollars.”

“Costs for lodging and air travel to attend the conference are comparative to those found at mainland venues,” Catterson responded.

A previous Ninth Circuit conference also held in Maui cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in travel and accommodation expenses.

The senators outline specific questions about the conference, such as a detailed list of swag, a breakdown of hotel rooms, transportation, and meal rates, an explanation why the venue -- the Hyatt Recent Maui Resort & Spa -- was chosen, what costs are associated with having spouses attend, and why the conference could not be done via teleconference instead.

Grassley and Sessions requested a full reply to their questions by June 15. The Ninth Circuit is reviewing the letter from the senators.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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