Some $3 million of a huge federal fund to help Americans whacked in the home loan crisis was improperly used by some states for steak and seafood dinners, barbeques and even a pinata, according to a new audit of the Hardest Hit Fund.

Instead of helping thousands of unemployed Americans unable to pay their mortgage, some states also used the money to boost the morale of their employees with bonuses, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

"Congress did not authorize TARP dollars for barbeques, steak and seafood dinners, gift cards, flowers, gym memberships, employee bonuses, litigation, celebrations, cars, and other unnecessary expenses of state housing agencies, but those are some of the charges SIGTARP's forensic analysis uncovered," said Christy Goldsmith Romero, the special inspector general.

Taxpayer watchdog Sen. Chuck Grassley added, "Congress didn't intend this program for bureaucrats to live high on the hog, yet the bureaucrats in question did exactly that. They bought barbecue and gift cards for themselves with taxpayer dollars."

Grassley demanded that states repay the squandered money. ‘Three million might sound like decimal dust to those who write big checks at the Treasury Department, but it's a lot of money for people struggling to keep their homes. Every single agency that squandered this money needs to pay back every penny to the American taxpayers. The Treasury Department must make that happen."

The HHF fund was created during the housing crisis to help out unemployed and under-employed mortgage holders.

The audit report said:

Some of the unnecessary expenses SIGTARP identified are large: Rhode Island charged to TARP hundreds of thousands for the construction of a customer center even though it is also used for non-HHF purposes -- years after billing TARP for the build-out of an office in 2010. Others are relatively small but numerous: TARP gift cards for employees, TARP barbeques, TARP flowers, TARP gym memberships, TARP balloons -- even a TARP pinata. All these unnecessary expenses violate TARP law and Treasury's contracts. And, most importantly, it means that taxpayers are spending more than they need to on programs.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com