A federal juvenile justice official who was fired on June 24 had helped selected organizations apply for Justice Department grants past the deadline - a significant violation of department policy - and directed employees to help a favored organization win a grant, according to federal documents.
Michele DeKonty, who served as chief of staff at the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), played a central role in grant awards that are under congressional investigation. She recently took the Fifth Amendment when asked to speak with investigators from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is probing whether OJJDP awarded grants based on political favoritism and personal connections.
OJJDP Administrator J. Robert Flores offered no explanation in announcing her departure in a memo to staffers on the morning of June 25, saying, "Yesterday, [DeKonty] ended her tenure with our Office."
Last year, DeKonty - a graduate of Regent University, which calls itself "America's Preeminent Christian University" - helped faith-based organizations apply for mentoring grants even though the deadline had passed, prompting a senior Justice Department official to fire off an angry rebuke to Flores.
"I am very disturbed that Michele advised you to disregard all the rules (that were posted on your website) and permit every late applicant an opportunity to submit an application," wrote Beth McGarry, the deputy assistant attorney general for operations and management at the Office of Justice Programs. She called the decision "indefensible."
Flores had written an e-mail to McGarry saying the move benefited "small" faith-based and community-based organizations, and that "their participation is a Presidential priority."
McGarry shot back: "It is critical for the integrity of the competitive process that all applicants are treated the same and that we do not bend the rules for a category of applicants, such as faith based organizations." She wrote that organizations often start the application process too late and ask for exceptions, but "the answer is always the same: we do not permit backdoor applications."
Flores wrote that not allowing the applicants to get around the deadline "would have been a disaster that I would have had to answer for."
Several of the late-applying organizations won grants.
That exchange occurred in early July, a few weeks after DeKonty helped the World Golf Foundation apply for a different grant even though it began the process too late to meet the deadline.
Officials with the foundation's The First Tee program discussed the National Juvenile Justice Programs grant in a meeting with Flores and DeKonty in June 2007, then asked them for help after discovering that the foundation would miss the deadline, according to e-mails and testimony gathered by the oversight committee. DeKonty directed agency staffers to help the foundation get its application in on time, effectively getting around the Web-based system that the federal government requires grant applicants to use, according to the committee.
An agency staffer later wrote an e-mail saying DeKonty told him World Golf's bid would be funded, even before anyone began reviewing and scoring the applications. The program received a $500,000 grant.
DeKonty's departure came less than a week after the House oversight committee hearing, at which it was announced that she had taken the Fifth Amendment in refusing to talk with committee staffers about their investigation.
DeKonty had been at OJJDP for two years, having previously served as a legislative assistant for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), focusing on social welfare issues.
Flores' short e-mail to the staff called DeKonty "talented and professional." DeKonty and her attorney were not immediately available for comment.