A Clash of Faith, Money and Politics

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Flores: His lawyer says he stuck to the regulations.

Flores: His lawyer says he stuck to the regulations.

J. Robert Flores took over the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 2002 with a mission to push money to faith-based organizations, and now a Justice Department investigation shows how he worked around the rules and his staff to do it.

A report released in late April by the department’s inspector general nips the former OJJDP administrator for skirting federal regulations and practices, but by no means does it nail him – giving both his allies and foes fodder to say “told ya.”

But as the Obama administration ponders who will next run OJJDP, the ultimate value of the Flores case lies in what it shows about the agency itself: that its grant-making process has long been vulnerable to political pressure and philosophical conflicts.

Flores did what some others had done before him, albeit clumsily. That’s because OJJDP has spent much of its 35 years in a three-way wrestling match among its administrators, their higher-ups in the Justice Department and members of Congress over who gets to give out its millions of dollars in grants.

“I was in this constant battle,” says Bob Sweet, who ran OJJDP under President George H.W. Bush.

Why is that so often the case? Because “I had more money to give away, just with my signature, than a lot of cabinet members did,” says Al Regnery, one of the OJJDP administrators under President Reagan.

Regnery drew howls of protest from practitioners for carrying out Reagan’s mandate to fund law-and-order approaches – just as John Rector, one of his predecessors (and a Democrat), had been lambasted for making grant decisions based on his views about juvenile justice reform. Members of Congress went after both of them, just as Congress investigated Flores last year after Youth Today reported on his grant-making practices.

The congressional ire is ironic, because past administrators say part of their jobs was handling calls from members of Congress who were pushing grants for their favored programs, and weathering tirades when a request wasn’t fulfilled. Rector says one of the biggest firestorms came after he rejected a request to fund a Boy Scout project named after J. Edgar Hoover.

During Sweet’s tenure, the funding pressure came from his higher-ups in Justice. He recalls an assistant attorney general calling about someone who ran an organization in Chicago, saying, “This guy’s a good guy. You need to give him a grant.” Sweet says he told the man to “send me a grant proposal. He sent me something almost unintelligible. I said no.” Sweet says his failure to always play along eventually cost him his job.

In the 1990s, Congress won the battle by claiming almost all of OJJDP’s discretionary budget through earmarks.

Attempts have been made to safeguard against excessive political and personal influences. Ira Schwartz says that when he made the rounds of congressional offices after President Carter nominated him as Rector’s successor, the main message he got was to fix the grant-making process. He recalls Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) saying, “Look Ira, I don’t really care ultimately who gets the money, but have a fair process, so that people from my state can at least have a chance to compete.”

Schwartz says he instituted a competitive bidding process involving panels of experts who reviewed and ranked grant proposals. (Schwartz is chairman of the board of the American Youth Work Center, which publishes Youth Today.) OJJDP’s current guidelines place high value on this process.

Flores found the process to be in his way.

Flores’ Faith

Flores, a former New York City prosecutor with a background in fighting child exploitation and pornography, was comfortable carrying out President George W. Bush’s priority of awarding more federal grants to faith-based organizations. His biggest chance came in fiscal 2007, when a suspension of congressional earmarks handed OJJDP something it had not had in years: lots of discretionary money to award through grants.

However, Flores repeatedly clashed with higher-ranking Justice Department officials who had their own funding priorities, and who were shocked by his sometimes ham-handed style.

For example, at one point some faith-based organizations were in a panic because, not accustomed to the system for responding to federal RFPs (Requests for Proposals), it became clear that they did not have time to jump through the required bureaucratic hoops to meet an application deadline. Flores’ chief of staff, Michele DeKonty, let the organizations apply late, which Flores justified in a memo to a senior Justice Department official by saying the move benefited faith-based and community-based organizations whose “participation is a presidential priority.”

That official, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth McGarry, fired back, “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.” She called the decision “indefensible.”

Offering a hint that he was under pressure, Flores wrote back that not extending the deadline for those groups “would have been a disaster that I would have had to answer for.”

Flores also helped faith-based groups after their bids were submitted. Even though OJJDP staffers scored the bids under several RFPs (which served as a peer review process), in some cases Flores chose to award grants to proposals that scored well below proposals that he did not fund. Those winners included faith-based groups such as Victory Outreach Special Services, Messiah College, People for People and the U.S. Dream Academy, along with politically well-connected groups like the Best Friends Foundation and the World Golf Foundation’s First Tee program. Messiah College’s bid, for example, ranked 84th, but won one of nine mentoring grants.

Flores’ choices set off a firestorm among staffers and led to an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

But nothing requires the OJJDP administrator to stick to the findings of staff and peer reviews; they’re advisory. And peer reviews do not wipe out the reality of human judgment or the political leanings of the boss.

Aside from the scores, administrators can consider such factors as diversity in geography and in types of programs. As Flores said at his hearing last year before the House committee, “If I only looked at the scores, there would be no need to have an administrator for this office.”

Flores, however, appears to have pushed further than most of his predecessors in bypassing peer review results. Sweet says he stayed around the top 10 on the peer review lists. Shay Bilchik, who ran the office under President Clinton, says he generally followed the peer review rankings, and when he deviated, he explained his reasons in writing.

Flores wrote nothing to justify his leapfrogging.

Did he violate any rules? The inspector general’s report (Report of Investigation Relating to J. Robert Flores) says neither Flores nor Regina Schofield, an assistant attorney general who clashed with him over many of his choices for grant recipients but approved his final selections, kept documents to show why the awards were made. “We could not corroborate Flores’ stated reasons for his award recommendations or disprove the allegations that subjective or personal factors improperly influenced his decisions,” the report says.

Faith-Based Hiring

The inspector general’s report says Flores violated federal ethics regulations by accepting a free round of golf from World Golf, and bypassed hiring rules when he brought in a former Honduran military official to help faith-based groups.

Flores wanted Hector Rene Fonseca to work on anti-gang initiatives, particularly to help “push the president’s faith-based initiative,” the report says. When various technicalities got in the way (like Fonseca not being a U.S. citizen), Flores tried hiring him through a waiver, a sole source contract and by funding his position through an OJJDP contractor in Florida, even though Fonseca would work in Washington. All three efforts were rejected by Justice officials, the report says.

Flores eventually paid Fonseca through an OJJDP contractor at $450 a day, the report says. It says Fonseca’s tasks included “organizing faith-based groups in support of OJJDP’s gang reduction program, assisting OJJDP staff integrate [sic] a faith-based component into existing programs, and developing a database of entities supporting faith-based initiatives.”

The report says that “documentation of Fonseca’s work was not sufficient” to determine whether he earned the $281,000 that OJJDP paid him from 2004 to 2007.

Flores’ attorney, Elliot S. Berke, declined a request to interview Flores. In his reply to the inspector general, Berke wrote that the grant decisions were made “in accordance with the law” and OJJDP regulations, but Flores agreed that the grant process “was in need of improvement.”

As a result of the scandal, the inspector general’s report notes, the Justice Department issued a memo last year saying that when OJJDP officials “select lower-ranking proposals over those that receive higher peer review scores, they now must document” their reasons.