Face Time Pays Off

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Justice Under Oath: J. Robert Flores testifies last month before a House committee, saying allegations about his grant selections “are false.”

Photo: House Committee on Oversight

The World Golf Foundation wasn’t used to this hassle. After years of winning millions of dollars in congressional earmarks for its youth program, The First Tee, the foundation found itself struggling last year to complete the federal government’s grant application process under deadline pressure – just like any regular organization competing for money.

So the foundation asked for help. In stepped J. Robert Flores, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and an avid golfer who had played with foundation officials on their dime. With a grant deadline just days away, Flores had his top administrators meet with the executive director of The First Tee, then directed his staff to help the organization overcome hurdles to rush in its application for a competitive bid – a bid that staffers were told World Golf would win, even before they reviewed any proposals.

How World Golf and other well-connected organizations got OJJDP grants is among the stories that have emerged from a congressional investigation into OJJDP’s grant making, which led to a public hearing last month. Testimony, e-mails and other documents gathered by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform show that Flores and his top administrators met with select bidders and helped some apply for grants, which drew lectures from higher-ups and stirred discomfort among his staff.

One Justice Department official wrote Flores a scathing e-mail, telling him that “bending the rules” to help some grant applicants “is not defensible.”

Flores and his supporters say he simply used his authorized discretion in giving out money to worthwhile programs. “These are called discretionary grants for a reason,” Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said at the hearing.

The controversy revolves around the National Juvenile Justice Program grants, for which OJJDP received 104 bids last year and gave out 10 grants, totaling $8.6 million. Most of the bids that were scored the highest by OJJDP staffers did not get grants, while several programs were funded even though they scored lower than dozens of programs that were not.

Central to the controversy is how much discretion agency administrators have. The answer is: a lot. Although Flores’ detractors have charged that he broke federal rules or laws in the grants process, the House committee has not claimed that with its allegations so far.

The dispute is whether Flores abused his discretion and damaged the integrity of the competitive bidding process. “Your actions cast a taint over the entire process,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told Flores at the hearing. “The appearance is that the playing field is not level.”

Who Got Time With Flores?

The willingness of Flores to meet with potential grantees and direct his staff to help them stands in contrast to his unwillingness to meet with others, and to unofficial policy at OJJDP. It also caused some consternation among his staff.

Last March, Lisa Pion-Berlin, CEO of California-based Parents Anonymous, called OJJDP to request a meeting with Flores in Washington in early April. A staffer responded that Flores “was not available to meet with her,” nor was Associate Administrator Ron Laney, according to a subsequent e-mail from the staffer to Laney.

That e-mail reminded Laney that this very issue “had been addressed a few weeks ago,” when Flores’ chief of staff, Michele DeKonty, declared that if anyone from Parents Anonymous was going to get a meeting with OJJDP, it “would happen at the program manager level.”

Later in March, however, a “parent leader” from the organization met Flores at an event at the National Press Club in Washington and got an agreement from Flores to meet with Pion-Berlin. She called OJJDP the next day to set up the meeting.

Word got back to Laney, who e-mailed Flores about the issue, which had arisen before: “Bob, staff is concerned that we are not consistent in our messages to earmark grantees. Per our understanding, these calls were to be handled by Program Managers and to protect you from folks beating down your door by saying that you are not available. Is this correct? Open door for one and others will follow.”

Some see the inconsistency as evidence that Flores played favorites with grant applicants. “You were directing your staff to provide assistance that you weren’t providing to others,” Cummings told Flores at the oversight committee hearing last month. “It is a question of a level playing field. It is a question of fairness.”

“I try to meet with anyone” who might want help in applying for grants, Flores said.

Flores did not meet with Pion-Berlin. Her organization’s application scored an average of 89.5, ranking it 24th. It was not funded.

Flores’ Defense

Flores sat alone at the witness table in the congressional hearing room and calmly but steadfastly defended himself against accusations that he awarded competitive grants based on favoritism and political connections. “Each one of those allegations is false,” he said.

He said the allegations were based on misunderstandings of the grants process and political opposition to his selections. Several Republican members of the committee concurred. “What we have is a disagreement over your decisions,” said Davis, the Republican congressman from Virginia.

Flores said the scores the reviewers on his staff gave to the applicants for the National Juvenile Justice Program grants were advisory. He noted that:

• Each of the reviewers scored only a few of the 104 bids, and therefore did not know how their applicants stacked up against most of the others.

• The reviewers did not take into account such matters as whether the Justice 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 were intended to give him a pool of qualified applicants, from which he could make selections, based on the department’s priorities and his knowledge of the field.

Cummings: “The playing field is not level.”

Photo: House of Representatives

Some high-scoring bids proposed activities that were similar to what the department was already funding elsewhere, he explained. He said other bidders were already getting federal grants, and he wanted to fund a diverse group of bidders. Both are common reasons for government agencies to turn down grant applications.

“If I only looked at the scores, there would be no need to have an administrator for this office,” Flores said.

He 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 categories, such as school-based efforts to prevent pregnancy, although she later learned that those groups ranked as low as 51st overall.

Flores said he created those categories only as an organizational device, to group the applicants by the areas on which they focused. His memo to Schofield, however, cites those categories in justifying the grants.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight committee, said all of the current and former Justice Department staffers and officials who spoke with the committee during its investigation said the process for selecting the grants was not fair or transparent. “It seems that you are the only person at the Department of Justice who thinks your process was fair, transparent and served the taxpayers,” Waxman said.

Davis said critics are just angry that Flores didn’t fund the organizations that they prefer. “This hearing,” he said, “is little more than an attempt to earmark by oversight.”