One Strange Story Among the List of Missing OJJDP Earmarks

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Two months ago, we noted in our informal guide to the OJJDP grants that the agency had awarded 19 fewer earmarks than Congress had appropriated for Fiscal 2009. Upon recounting, it was actually 11 fewer: 277 earmark grants were announced by OJJDP, compared with 288 appropriated by Congress.

We finally got an explanation last week, after much back-and-forth with the agency. Most of the missing earmarks are easily accounted for, but one traces back to a strange unfolding of events that may prevent one Texas county from getting much federal patronage in the future. The story shows how sloppy earmarking can be.

First, let’s tackle the first 10 missing earmarks that can be easily accounted for.:

* Five earmarks totaling about $1.4 million were absorbed by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

*Another three, totaling $1.3 million, were funded by the Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS).

This is significant: That’s a couple million dollars more that OJJDP was able to spend on competitive grants or operating costs. And considering that there is no longer a set amount allocated to OJJDP for general operation, diverting these earmarks to other agencies might be a survival tactic.

*A $400,000 earmark requested by Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) was listed in congressional appropriations for “Allegheny County,” and apparently OJJDP needed some clarification before it could make that grant. The agency has determined that the county agency receiving the funds will be the Allegheny County Housing Authority, according to OJJDP spokeswoman Joan LaRocca, to support the Harrison Township Community Center After School Program. “The award is in process,” LaRocca said.

*A $150,000 grant to Youth Alive, in Louisville, requested by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), could not be funded because the “Youth Alive branch no longer exists,” according to LaRocca.

Youth Alive shut its doors this summer because of financial uncertainties brought on by a tragic accident on Dec. 18, 2008. Youth Alive was transporting youths home from one of the organization’s events that night and, with three of its own vans full of kids, told four teens to get a ride in a van operated by Herbert Lee, a 16-year-old who, unbeknownst to staff, had stolen the vehicle.

When the police attempted to pull Lee over, a short chase ensued and Lee crashed the van, killing all four passengers. Facing litigation from the families of the teens and a lawsuit by its own insurance company, Youth Alive closed its doors.

Bay City 

Then there is the case of Bay City, Texas. Population: 20,000.

The city was awarded a $500,000 earmark that would essentially pass through to a group called Nu Beginnings Labor Action Committee (NuBlac), which would use the funds to provide drug rehabilitation programs to juveniles. The earmark was secured by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who, surprisingly, is among the biggest pork-securers in Congress.

LaRocca told JJ Today that the earmark wasn’t funded because NuBlac “declined to submit an application for the earmark.” That’s true, and is pretty much all OJJDP needs to know. If someone doesn’t bother to apply for their earmarked money, it is hardly the job of the agency to find out why.

But it was curious that someone would go to the trouble of landing a $500,000 grant, then decide not to provide the basic paperwork required by OJJDP. Especially in these economic times.

Here’s what happened:

NuBlac President Joyce Black moved back to Bay City from California a few years ago, and took NuBlac, the nonprofit she started out West, back home with her.

NuBlac is a reactive type of entity, in that Black tries to pair needs with available resources. This is reflected in the wide variation of earmark projects she proposed to Tom Lizardo, a senior staffer for Rep. Paul:

-$10.3 million for a youth center
-$2.2 million to help improve conditions in low-income housing
-$2 million for a rehabilitation center to serve minority veterans
-$500,000 for the juvenile drug rehab center.

Black pursued all of these in 2008, which meant the money would be in fiscal 2009 appropriations if she was successful. Black met with Lizardo (of the congressman’s office)  and with community leaders, including local judge Nate McDonald and Mayor Richard Knapik.

NuBlac’s formal proposal to congressman Paul included letters of support from Knapik and other elected officials. In an e-mail that Lizardo wrote to Knapik recounting the process, he mentions having “talked with you and Judge McDonald about trying to get together the elected leadership with leaders in the minority community.  It was a positive and productive talk.”

Clearly, in the early stages, Knapik and others were supportive of the idea for this earmark.

Now, a quick but relevant tangent. Aside from her work at NuBlac, Black said she is a trained paralegal and that she frequently dispenses legal advice on basic matters to members of the community.

So it was that two Bay City employees came to her after being fired by the city. The two women worked in the city’s finance department, and had voiced concern over the use of city credit cards to purchase alcohol, expensive meals and questionable hotel reservations. Black continued helped the two employees as they filed complaints for wrongful termination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This all happened after the initial meetings between Black, the mayor and congressional staffer Lizardo. Meanwhile, Lizardo had put in the request for the earmark and listed Bay City as the grantee and fiscal agent, even though funding for the center would go to NuBlac for the center. Black says this was always the arrangement she anticipated; she never intended that NuBlac be the lead grantee.

In summer of 2008, OJJDP’s 2009 appropriation moved out of the House appropriations committee. In included an earmark of $500,000 for “The City of Bay City” for “the NuBlac rehab center.”

Then in May of 2008, Knapik wrote Lizardo and told him that Bay City would not serve as the grantee. Que paso? JJ Today asked, and Knapik answered:

“The City of Bay City simply could not meet the requirements mandated by the State of Texas for the licensing and operation of a Rehab Center. We were supporters of this venture but we could not be the licensee.”

Black says that explanation is hooey. She is convinced that Knapik got angry at her for helping the former city employees, and pulled the plug on the center as retribution. The EEOC complaint filed by the women was closed, but the Texas Rangers have since July of 2008 been investigating the city for misuse of credit cards and retaliation against former employees, according to coverage from a local newspaper, the Matagorda Advocate. The Rangers did not return a call regarding the status of that investigation.

Her main piece of evidence is a letter from Knapik to Lizardo in July 2008, which does not mention any concerns over licensing. Said Knapik of the rehab center and other requests:

“These requests appear to have come straight from NuBlac, an entity which is not registered to do business in Texas, and which does not have 501(c)(3) status. … Representations to the contrary have been made to us, and we are concerned that such may have been made to you too.”

Tax return documents on the website Guidestar.org indicate that NuBlac is a 501(c)(3) exempt organization, and was incorporated in California in 1986.

Lizardo appears to agree with Black that the project went sideways because of squabbles, not city licensing protocol.

“Simple answer: infighting at the local level,” Lizardo wrote to JJ Today when asked for his take on the ill-fated earmark. He expressed similar frustration in a letter to Knapik: “At some point the relationship between the City Administration and Joyce [Black] have deteriorated.”

That letter was sent in July 2008. Eight months passed before the OJJDP appropriations became part of an omnibus budget bill signed by President Barack Obama. And in that time, nobody stepped up to accept fiscal responsibility over the earmark.

Whatever Knapik’s motivation, it looks crazy in retrospect that the city was named a grantee without ever formally being asked if it wanted to be one. And when Knapik did indicate his unwillingness to take the funds in May 2008, why didn’t the process stop right there? Why did the earmark make it all the way to the end of the line with so much uncertainty around who would take responsibility for it?

The immediate result here is that Bay City will have one less alternative for handling juvenile offenders this year. Long term, the losers may include anyone who looks for a congressional earmark for Bay City in the future.

“If nobody in Matagorda County can be found to take the federal funds, that is fine with me,” Lizardo told Knapik in his July letter. “Frankly, it will greatly decrease our interest in making requests for the area in the future – but with the way this has been handled, personally, I am already at that point.”