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Federal Grant Agency For Faith-Based Organizations Lacks Oversight, Transparency

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Gay_marriage.png The government distributed funds to organizations protesting gay marriage and homosexuality. (Flickr/Dan the Webmaster)

An obscure branch of the federal government responsible for distributing millions of tax dollars to religious organizations is drawing criticism for poor oversight over how federal grant money is spent and an overall lack of transparency. Good-government advocates warn that without rigorous transparency, the likelihood for corruption, ethics violations and unconstitutional spending of tax dollars is high.

[Congress1] The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is a sub-agency of the Department of Human Services. The programs administered by the ACF that religious organizations most often use — Healthy Marriage, Abstinence Only and The Compassion Capital Fund — cost more than $255 million in 2008, according to the most recent annual report on file.

To critics of these programs, this amounts to a dangerous recipe for potential abuse, thanks to the political activities of many of the groups receiving funding.

In South Carolina, the Palmetto Family Council, a local affiliate of the Family Research Council (FRC), was awarded $1.2 million through Healthy Marriage and Abstinence Only grants from 2004 to 2009. According to its blog, the “top priority” for the group in 2006 was South Carolina’s anti-gay marriage amendment. Earlier this month, Palmetto’s president, Oran Smith, condemned public funding of a gay and lesbian group’s annual statewide festival, citing concerns about using “public funds for a festival that is political or indecent or both.”

The Indiana Family Institute, another local FRC affiliate, received $50,000 in direct federal funding and is listed as a third party contractor for the Abstinence Singles/Lake County Marriage Coalition. The Abstinence Singles grant award is $941,000 per year through 2011. Also known as Hoosier Family, the Indiana Family Institute is advocating for an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2010.

The Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) received more than $3 million in federal funds to pay for a marriage-mentoring program. The program, called Marriage Matters, was found not to be a third-party contractor but rather a trademark of the outspoken anti-gay group. IFPC has garnered headlines for its opposition to same-sex marriage, including public allegations that homosexuality poses a greater public health risk than second-hand smoke.

The Iowa Family Policy Center’s acceptance of federal funds, coupled with its religious political agenda, prompted the ACLU of Iowa to announce it would investigate whether the funding violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Potential abuses of ACF funding can be difficult to monitor, because the ACF relies on self-reporting by grant recipients to track their own spending. It relies on citizen complaints of wrongdoing to launch an investigation into misuse of funds. And all the while, proactive follow-up by ACF is rare.

President George W. Bush announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives after he took office in January 2001. Separation of church and state advocates were outraged when President Barack Obama elected to continue the program under the name Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The day after taking office, President Obama issued a memorandum to the heads of executive agencies calling for new vigor in fulfilling the public’s need for transparency and openness in government. But for all the authority allotted the ACF, there remains considerable mystery surrounding how grant money is awarded and spent.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of New York, said, “I have started using the opening line ‘the promise of transparency is illusory’ in all my Freedom of Information Act requests because it is.”

Amiri has filed more than a half-dozen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the HHS in the last few years. In a recent case, Amiri waited 8 months for a partial FOIA response from the ACF and is still waiting, two years later, for a complete report.

According to the Freedom of Information Act, governmental agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 30 days.

“We can’t sit and wait [for a FOIA] while money is continuing to be spent unconstitutionally, so we sue,” Amiri said. “We [ACLU] have the ability to sue for the information we need, but what about the average citizen? They aren’t going to be able to sue in order to get what is already supposed to be public.”

The Iowa Independent had a similar experience during its investigation of Iowa Family Policy Center. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the ACF regarding IFPC, The Iowa Independent waited four months for a partial response and was forced to file a second request – called a reconsideration — for information that was omitted. The ACF has only three full-time Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) specialists on staff, which creates staggering wait times for fulfillment of information requests.

ACF spokesman Kenneth Wolfe never responded to dozens of e-mails and phone calls requesting comment regarding award payment schedules and specifics on the role of the ACF in policing faith-based awards. Wolfe was also asked if a so-called clawback provision exists as a way for the government to recoup money spent inappropriately by faith-based and other grant recipients, another question that was ignored.

These requests for information were included in a certified letter mailed to former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Carmen Nazario, and then hand delivered to Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families David Hansell after Nazario stepped down in July. Again, the agency failed to respond.

The Assistant Secretary for Children and Families is a politically appointed position.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), shares Amiri’s concerns about lack of transparency. CREW was responsible for gaining the release of more than five million “lost” Bush era e-mails, and recently filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting John Yoo’s torture memos.

Weismann said she wishes she could be more optimistic about the Obama mandate for transparency, but the policy isn’t being put into practice.

“Phone calls, faxes and e-mails to executive agencies go unanswered, redactions continue to happen,” she said. “We end up suing the government over and over again for the same type of public information, and the American people end up spending money on unnecessary litigation.”

Wolfe’s refusal to respond to requests for information from The Iowa Independent is not an isolated incident, observers say, as his office has typically been a** **roadblock to information on taxpayer money to religious organizations instead of an advocate for transparency.

In addition to his former role as a Republican Congressional staffer, Wolfe has been outspoken in his social conservative positions. In response to a lawsuit over abortion assistance given to a minor by Catholic Charities in 2008, he made an official statement in his role as ACF spokesman, “Our agency is one that supports human life, and we take that responsibility seriously.” Catholic Charities organizations throughout the United States receive millions in federal funding.

No matter what the roadblock inside the ACF, limited access to public information regarding federal grant money and lack of transparency remain the norm. Addressing what can be done about continued government opacity, CREW’s Wiesman said, “People need to speak out and continue to speak out about the continued lack of transparency because the administration isn’t getting the point.”

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