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Justice in Hot Water Over Dubious Grants

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/best-friends-foun.jpg

A new investigation of the Justice Dept. is now gaining traction. The scandal stems from the department’s decision to distribute millions of dollars in federal grants to questionable youth and crime-fighting programs, despite advice from agency staff members not do so.

Two separate reports released last month, one by Congress and one from a nonprofit group document the controversy. The reports assert that a $1.1-million grant to prevent teenage delinquency was given to an abstinence-only sex education program run by Elayne Bennett, wife of the prominent Republican William Bennett. Career Justice staffers had said the education program “made no sense,” but a department administrator overruled them. The staff had also rejected a $500,000 grant for a youth golfing program, but that was awarded as well.

These accusations of dubious grant-making are the latest wrinkle in the widening investigation of the Bush administration’s political patronage involving the Justice Dept.

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Congress_6711.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“When organizations cannot be assured that the playing field was level,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a statement, “we are left with the impression that political favoritism, maybe even total randomness, won out over good government.”

McCaskill is specifically investigating local law enforcement grants disctributed by the Justice Dept.’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. A report by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight revealed that some of these grants had been, without explanation, made exempt from the peer review process — where Justice Dept. staff and law-enforcement experts evaluate the grants.

The House oversight committee is additionally investigating grants by a second Justice Dept. office — the Office of Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention.

According to a House report, a peer review team of Justice Dept. officials analyzed 104 applications and judged 18 worthy of the $8.6 million in available grants. But in a break from the standard practice, J. Robert Flores, the administrator of the juvenile justice office, who is a political appointee, bestowed five grants not named on the list of recommended programs. A total of ten grants were allotted.

The five not recommended for grants who received them anyway included Best Friends Foundation, the abstinence-only sex education program run by Elayne Bennett, which ranked 53 out of the 104 applications. Justice Dept. staff found the application “poorly written” and “illogical.”

Bennett’s husband, William Bennett, was secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and then served as the “drug czar” under President George H.W. Bush, when he headed the Office of National Drug Control Policy. As host of a nationally syndicated morning radio show, he remains a prominent social conservative — despite admitting to losing millions in gambling online.

Elayne Bennett said in an interview that her husband had nothing to do with her group getting the grant. “He’s not plugged into this administration,” she said.

The report asserts that it was Elayne Bennett who is plugged in– inviting Flores, his wife Ingrid Flores, Flores’s special assistant, Donni LaBoeuf and her husband, to a $500-per-plate fund-raiser for the Best Friends Foundation. Flores attended, even though he had promised Justice Dept. staff that he would not meet personally with potential grant recipients.

Bennett confirmed that Flores attended the fund-raiser. She also confirmed the report’s assertion that Flores appeared on a “Stop the Madness” panel that her Foundation runs during the summer. Bennett said her group tackles teenage pregnancy and male adolescent violence and because Flores was on the panel he “saw the impact we were having in juvenile crime prevention.”

Bennett compared getting a grant while ranking in the bottom half of applicants to a student winning college admission who ranked low in their high school class but can, for example, play the cello. For Bennett, Best Friend’s version of cello skills is “a proven curriculum.” Best Friends abstinence program currently reaches 16 public schools in the greater Washington area.

Another “not recommended” grant was $500,000 to the World Golf Foundation’s First Tee Initiative. The program, based in St. Augustine, Fla.–home of the World Golf Hall of Fame — seeks to “impact the lives of young people by providing learning facilities and educational programs that enhance character development through the game of golf.” This program ranked 47 out of 104, with some Justice Dept. staff expressing concern it wouldn’t serve a “large population of at-risk kids.”

The committee report alleges that Flores met with Joe Barrow, executive director of the First Tee program, and encouraged him to apply for a Justice Dept. grant. This meeting came about after Flores played golf in St. Augustine during the World Golf Foundation’s annual meeting. The World Golf Foundation declined an interview request.

The other three “not recommended” grants were to faith-based initiatives. These include $1.2 million given to Victory Outreach Services, a faith-based community initiative group headed by Lisa Cummins, a former official in the White House office for Faith-Based Initiatives. The committee report indicates that Cummins met personally with the Justice Dept. prior to receiving the grant. Cummins told The Washington Independent that she was advised by her attorney not to speak with reporters.

As the House oversight committee released its report on the juvenile justice grants, a second grant-making imbroglio became public. A Project On Government Oversight report indicated that the Bureau of Justice Assistance local law enforcement Byrne Grant program awarded 13 grants worth about $15 million that were exempt from that department’s peer review process.

Two Byrne Grants have particularly attracted the attention of Congressional investigators: $603,000 to the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and $296,000 to the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services.

The head of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Domingo Herraiz, was a top official in the Ohio attorney general’s office between 2000-03, running their Office of Criminal Justice Services (this time period roughly coincides with the Ohio “Coingate” scandal, when the state’s pension fund, the Bureau of Worker’s Compensation, invested millions in a rare coin fund managed by a prominent GOP fund-raiser).

As for the grant to the Fraternal Order of Police, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, James Pasco, is married to Cybele Daley, a top official at the Office of Justice Programs, whose title is deputy assistant attorney general.

The Project On Government Oversight report noted that, “although Daley does not have decision-making authority for grant awards, this possible conflict of interest should have at least required that grant proposals from any Fraternal Order of Police organization be peer reviewed.”

Mark Drum, state treasurer of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, said in an interview that he was not aware Daley was married to Pasco until after the grant was awarded. Drum said the grant will go to a school alert system, that notifies parents of school emergencies, like bus crashes.

The Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services Program will use its grant for a Columbus, Ohio anti-gang initiative. Lindsay Komlane, spokeswoman for the Ohio Dept. of Public Health and Safety, which oversees the Criminal Justice Services Program, said Criminal Justice Services did not talk to Herraiz, their former boss, during the grant application process.

In their pledge to purge earmarks from government spending, Congress voted to delegate the grant-making authority for the Byrne Grant program to a Justice Dept. peer review process. In a letter to the Justice Dept., McCaskill called it “the perfect opportunity to prove competition results in a better final result than the earmarking process.”

But after what McCaskill described as “a process so convoluted and opaque that no one can figure out how the awards were determined,” it may be a while before Congress hands over more of its grant-giving power to the Justice Dept.

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