A Friend at Justice

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Flores: Says agency followed proper procedures.

The odds didn’t look good for the Best Friends Foundation when it applied for a competitive U.S. Department of Justice grant last year to combat juvenile delinquency. Department reviewers ranked its bid 51st out of 104 applications, with one reviewer writing that the “objectives are not quantifiable,” the information about program design and implementation “is insufficient,” and the bid “does not provide evidence of successful implementation other than anecdotal references.”

Then the administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) created a new criterion for the awards, one that the applicants and reviewers didn’t know about: “Utilizing school-based outreach efforts directed at preventing high-risk activity (out-of-wedlock pregnancy).” Under that criterion, the top-scoring – and perhaps only – bidder was the Best Friends Foundation.

Thus the foundation won one of the 10 National Juvenile Justice Programs grants, even though it scored lower than 41 bids that OJJDP rejected.

Here is a PDF of Flores' July 17 memo

Here are PDFs of the winning bids.

Here is a detailed list of bidders for OJJDP's 2007 National Juvenile Justice Program grants (winners are highlighted).

Here is a spreadsheet of all OJJDP 2007 discretionary grants.

OJJDP documents show that agency Administrator J. Robert Flores used several such criteria and priorities in awarding most of the $8.6 million under that grant competition, which is now under congressional investigation. That helps explain why the top-scoring bids won no grants, and why several dozen others were bypassed in favor of lower-scoring applications.

For example, Flores told Justice Department officials that the World Golf Association won a grant because it was the “highest” scoring bid that focused on sports, but did not mention that there appeared to be only one other sports bid. He justified three grants to Latino-based organizations by saying, after the bids were submitted, that he wanted to fund Latino-based mentoring.

The handling of the grants has opened a window into the grant-making process at OJJDP, with several repercussions:

• The agency’s credibility has been damaged among juvenile justice officials and service providers around the country. “The worst thing to me is just the demoralizing effect it has on the field,” said Jeffrey Butts, a research fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, who said he submitted a bid that didn’t win. “When you start thinking that the game is fixed, it’s really hard to sustain the energy you need” to apply for grants to do innovative work.

• Organizations that bid on the National Juvenile Justice Programs grants say that if they had known what some of the criteria were, they would have submitted proposals geared toward those criteria or would not have wasted their precious resources to create the bids.

“I certainly wish we had known” what all the criteria were going to be, said Victor Vieth, head of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University in Minnesota, whose bid ranked fourth but was rejected. “We put a lot of time and effort into preparing for this grant,” with a proposal to teach child protection to college students who plan careers in such areas as social work, nursing and law enforcement.

• Last month the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, whose members are appointed by the governors of each state to advise the OJJDP administrator, issued a report to Flores that included a recommendation that he “rely on peer review determinations in the selection of discretionary grants,” which is another matter of contention in the National Juvenile Justice Programs grants.

• Flores is trying to restrict which documents the Justice Department provides to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, according to several people familiar with the investigation. The chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), launched an investigation into how the agency awards grants, based on a Youth Today story about the process. (“For Juvenile Justice, A Panel of One,” December.)

Flores told his federal advisory committee last month that the awards process followed federal regulations and that he was cooperating with the House committee. In a written statement to Youth Today through his press office, Flores said that “the awards made all fall under” the three grant categories that were laid out in the grant announcement. “The award recipients represent a diverse and balanced group of programs.”

The OJJDP documents include a memo from Flores that sheds more light on how he made those controversial decisions.

Frantic Process

Flores was not always in control of who got money from his agency.

For years, Congress earmarked almost all of the agency’s discretionary funds. When Congress suspended those earmarks for fiscal 2007, the sudden availability of tens of millions of dollars in discretionary funds was supposed to be a boon for the agency and the juvenile justice field. But it created some chaos and in-fighting within parts of the Justice Department over how to award the money and whom to give it to.

In a process that is typical at federal agencies, some of the OJJDP money was awarded through “administrative earmarks,” in which officials seek sole-source proposals from organizations that they want to fund. People who worked on the funding at OJJDP for fiscal 2007 said Justice Department officials at a higher level than Flores decided who would get much of that money, sometimes over his objections. The winners of the noncompetitive grants, according to OJJDP, included the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

As for awarding money through competitive bids, OJJDP staffers were under incredible pressure last spring, say people who worked on the funding there, largely because Flores was late in developing and releasing his requests for proposals (RFP), and in getting the proposals evaluated and awarding the grants.

The RFP for the National Juvenile Justice Programs grants was unusually broad, leading many organizations to believe they had a shot at winning some money.

The first odd thing about the process for scoring those bids was that Flores did it entirely with staffers – a highly unusual move that juvenile justice veterans say violates the spirit, if not the letter, of OJJDP regulations for competitive grants. According to the DOJ website, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act “requires that programs be selected for OJJDP assistance through a formal peer review process using outside experts.”

Bidders assumed that the RFP’s reference to “a peer review panel” meant outside experts, and were shocked to find out the bids were reviewed by staff.

A DOJ spokeswoman told Youth Today in November that some of the grants were evaluated by staff and some by outside experts. However, people involved in the agency’s funding decisions say the evaluations were done only by staff, and a July 17 memo from Flores to Regina Schofield, assistant attorney general at the Office of Justice Programs, says that for the grants, “OJJDP conducted an internal peer review.”

A pair of reviewers was assigned to score each of the 104 bids, with their scores averaged and used to form a ranking. DOJ staffers have said the reviews were done over a frantic two-day period, but that some bids were graded in a matter of minutes.

Doing the Math

The staff scores did not bode well for some organizations that Flores wanted to fund, but that didn’t stop him.

Peer reviews are advisory; federal regulations give administrators final discretion in awarding competitive grants. The question with these grants is whether Flores abused that discretion.

He appears to have strayed unusually far from the rankings in giving out the awards. He bypassed the five highest-ranking bids, and 29 of the highest 33, according to the OJJDP list.

Bids that scored in the low to mid-90s were passed over for bids that scored in the low 80s.

But in his July 2007 memo to Schofield at the Office of Justice Programs – which oversees OJJDP and must approve its grants – Flores wrote, “The OJJDP Administrator selected applications from the top 20%.”

According to OJJDP documents that list the bidders in order of their average scores, only three of the 10 winning bids were ranked in the top 20 percent of the 104 bids that were scored.

Schofield, now director of public policy at Casey Family Programs, said last month that, based on the memo, she believed she was approving grants for bids that ranked “in the top one-fifth” among all the scores.

The memo does not mention the proposals’ actual scores or their overall rankings. Instead, it describes each winning bid as ranking “highest,” “second highest” or “third highest” among bids meeting priorities or criteria that Flores established.

Flores’ Criteria

The RFP listed three categories for the grants: building protective factors to combat juvenile delinquency, reducing child victimization, and improving the juvenile justice system. As is typical of an RFP, each category listed “key priorities,” including helping special populations such as tribal youth, addressing child abuse and neglect, and addressing the operation of juvenile courts.

But in awarding competitive grants, administrators can establish certain criteria they want to focus on, so that some proposals might fit better than others that scored higher. The most common criterion is making sure the winning grantees are spread out geographically.

Flores, however, created criteria that were so programmatically specific that they applied to just a few of the bids, raising the question of whether the criteria were custom-made to fit those bids. What’s particularly striking is how far down he dug into the rankings in order to award grants based on those criteria. For example:

• “Utilizing mentoring outreach efforts directed at Latino at-risk youth” is cited as a criterion, although mentoring and Latino youth are not mentioned in the RFP. Under this criterion, three Latino-focused organizations won three-year grants of $1.2 million each, with the Flores memo saying they had the “highest,” “second highest” and “third highest” scores under that criteria.

Among all bidders, those three organizations ranked 24th, 41st and 42nd.

Many of the non-winners do serve sizeable populations of Latino youth, and could have submitted proposals geared toward that criterion. For instance, Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas scored well above all three of the winners under this criterion, but wasn’t funded. The agency says 23 percent of the 8,500 youth it served last year were Latino. And Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has a Hispanic Mentoring initiative.

• Sex and pregnancy are not mentioned in the RFP, although preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancy is the criterion given for the Best Friends grant of $1.1 million over three years. The Flores memo states, “Out-of-wedlock teenage births pose as one of the highest risk factors for girls to become a delinquent juvenile.”

Bennett: Best Friends’ bid gets slammed, wins grant.

“I don’t know of any research that supports that,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. OJJDP did not provide an answer to a request to cite the evidence.

Best Friends did not return calls seeking comment. It is run by Elayne Bennett, wife of former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett.

Flores’ Priorities

The Flores memo also awarded grants under priorities that were stated in the RFP but that few bidders addressed:

• The RFP said youth development could include arts, sports and community service. The memo creates a specific criterion, “Utilizing sports-based outreach efforts directed at high-risk youth,” in awarding a one-year, $500,000 grant to the World Golf Association’s First Tee program.

Among all the bidders, two were clearly sports programs, while another involved arts: ArtsTech ranked 21st, and the U.S. Tennis and Education Association ranked among the bottom 20. Neither was funded.

Among all the bids, World Golf ranked 47th.

• Internet safety was cited as a priority in the RFP, and at least three bids came from organizations that focus on that issue. The top-scoring bid among them was Enough is Enough, which won a $750,000, three-year grant. It ranked 31st overall.

The memo also cited what appear to be new priority areas and listed some under categories different from where they were in the RFP. In his written statement, Flores said the grant categories “did not change.”

• “Multi-sector used Data” [sic] is listed as a priority in the memo, although neither the phrase nor a description appears in the RFP. It was used to award a one-year, $570,000 grant to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, to collect and disseminate data from the juvenile justice system. That bid ranked 15th overall, but the memo says it was first in that priority area. It is not clear if any other bids fit that priority.

What Bidders Want

For organizations that bid on OJJDP contracts, the issue raised by this process involves not just the money. As Butts of Chapin Hall said, “There are more people asking for money than can possibly get money. We’re used to that.”

The problem was that they believe the agency wasn’t straight with them – or worse, was outright duplicitous, running them through a fake bidding process so that OJJDP could fund whichever groups it wanted to.

“He asked the field to enter into a game where the only one that knew the rules was him,” said Earl Dunlap, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services, whose losing bid ranked second but was not funded.

Told about the criteria of mentoring Latino youth and preventing unwed teen pregnancies, Joe Ferrara, CEO of Meridian Behavioral Health Services, said that if those had been stated in the RFP, “we probably would not have gone through the process of applying.”

Meridian’s proposal ranked ninth but was not funded. “Naively, we believed that this was going to be a merit-based process,” Ferrara said.

That bid tied with the one from Krisberg’s National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which also wasn’t funded. For Krisberg, the issue raised by the grant process “is restoring the national credibility of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. … We need a credible OJJDP.”