J. Robert Flores calmly sat before a congressional committee yesterday and steadfastly defended himself against accusations from his own staff that he awarded competitive grants based on favoritism and political connections.
"Each one of those allegations is false," the administrator of the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Flores painted the allegations as based on misunderstandings of the grants process and political opposition to his selections, and several Republican members of the committee agreed with him.
"What we have is a disagreement over your decisions," Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee's ranking minority member, told Flores.
The core of Flores' testimony was that the critics do not understand the grants process. He said that the scores that the reviewers on his staff gave to the applicants for the National Juvenile Justice Program grants are advisory only, and that the rankings are not as meaningful as observers might think. That, he said, is because:
1. Each team of reviewers scored only a few of the 104 bids, and that they therefore did not know how their applicants stacked up against most of the others.
2. The reviewers do not take into account such matters as whether the department is funding similar projects, whether the bidder gets OJJDP money under other grants, and what the agency's priorities are.
Rather, Flores said the scores are intended to give him a pool of qualified applicants, from which he can make selections based on the department's priorities and his knowledge of the field. In defending a grant to the Best Friends Foundation, for example, he said, "I've made an effort to focus on girls" in awarding grants to fight delinquency. He noted reports that girls' arrest rates were rising while those for boys had been declining.
In several case, bids that scored high were proposing to do things that the department already paid someone else to do, so there was no need to fund them for the same work, Flores said. And he noted that Winona State University scored near the top in the staff reviews, but "is associated with the national District Attorney's Association," which got a different Justice Department grant of $700,000. That would have "concentrated too many funds" in related organizations, he said.
"I didn't disagree" with the scores given by the reviewers, he said. But "if I only looked at the scores, there would be no need to have an administrator for this office."
Flores repeatedly defended the two most controversial choices, the World Golf Association and Best Friends. He said both have produced evidence to show that they are effective in teaching life skills and helping youths avoid delinquent behavior.
He said Best Friends "was doing a tremendous job of keeping girls in school, keeping girls from getting pregnant. ... That is a phenomenal program."
(Neither group has been subject to the rigorous independent evaluations that the Bush administration has increasingly requested of human services programs that seek federal funds.)
Flores did not say yesterday that critics of the World Golf grant "are biased against the wealthy," a comment included in a draft of his testimony that was earlier reported by Youth Today.
The administrator noted that he presented his choices in a memo to Assistant Attorney General Regina Schofield, who oversaw OJJDP at the Office of Justice Programs. Schofield, who has left the Justice Department, has said Flores misled her by stating that certain groups ranked first, second or third in specific priority areas, although she recently learned that overall those groups ranked as low as 51st among the 104 bidders.
In response to reports that Flores appeared to have created special subcategories of grants that included only the grantees he wanted to fund, the administrator said that that was essentially impossible, because he didn't know ahead of time who was applying.
However, documents released by the committee and testimony to the committee staffers show that he knew some of those organizations were applying, including Best Friends, World Golf and Victory Outreach Special Services.
Flores and several GOP congressmen noted that some groups funded through these grants had been funded before, sometimes through congressional earmarks, including World Golf.
Davis, the congressman from Virginia, said the main problem that Flores had was that some people wished he had funded the organizations that they prefer. "This hearing is little more than an attempt to earmark by oversight," Davis said.
"While some may disagree with my decisions," Flores said, "they were made in accordance with the law, within department rules, and in good faith to address the needs of our children who find themselves in the juvenile justice system or at risk of contact with it."