The head of the nation’s juvenile justice office and his chief of staff helped favored organizations win competitive grants, pressured staffers to assist them, and decided on at least one of those grants before the bids were even reviewed, according to documents released Thursday by a congressional committee.
The chief of staff, Michele DeKonty, cited “her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination” in refusing to speak with investigators about whether the agency awarded competitive grants based on favoritism, according to a memorandum by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which held a hearing about the grants on Thursday.
J. Robert Flores, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), testified that he chose winners of the 2007 National Juvenile Justice Program grants based on merit and the agency’s priorities, and that allegations about his selections are based on a misunderstanding of the grants process and opposition to Bush administration policies. See related story. Flores was the only witness; about 80 people attended.
Several longtime OJJDP staffers have charged that some of the 10 grants winners chosen from 104 applicants were organizations whose bids scored far lower on staff reviews than did than dozens of bids that got no funding. The questioning and commentary from committee members split along party lines, with Democrats saying Flores abused his discretion and Republicans saying that some people are just unhappy with his choices.
The revelations and accusations at the hearing focused on the overall process and on several particularly controversial grants:
World Golf Foundation – $500,000 for one year. Scored 47th.
Flores took a trip to a World Golf Foundation conference in Florida in 2006 and played a round of golf with the foundation without paying – a possible violation of federal ethics laws regarding gifts and favors from those doing business with the government, said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). Cummings displayed a receipt showing that Flores paid $159 for that round of golf – on Wednesday, the day before the hearing and two years after the event.
Flores said he was invited to join a foundation golf outing at the last minute, that the foundation was “not set up” to accept his payment at that time, and his office had to repeatedly ask the foundation to send an invoice.
Flores met with foundation President Joe Louis Barrow Jr. in early 2007, and he and DeKonty met with Barrow again in June that year – at a time when the grant application process was under way, according to a memo summarizing the committee’s investigation. Barrow later e-mailed DeKonty to say that if not for the meeting “we might have completely missed the deadline. … I would ask you to determine how you might assist us in the initial effort.”
Flores and DeKonty asked Jeff Slowikoski, a veteran OJJDP staffer, why he had not “personally informed the World Golf Foundation” about the National Program grants solicitation. Slowikowski told the committee that Flores and DeKonty “then directed program staff to help the World Golf Foundation in preparing its application. “It was made clear to me that we had to … work with World Golf and make sure that they got their application in,” he told the committee, according to the memo.
Before the OJJDP staff began scoring the bids, Slowikowski wrote a memo to another staffer stating that the foundation was “requesting $3.0 million which I am certain we are funding because Michele [DeKonty] has said as much.”
Best Friends Foundation – $1.1 million over three years. Scored 51st.
Flores had multiple contacts with Best Friends, including attending a $500-a-plate fundraising event for the organization in April 2007. Flores, his wife and special assistant attended for free, with approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Scott Peterson, a former OJJDP program manager who scored some of the bids, told committee investigators that the president of Best Friends, Elayne Bennett, called him that month to say she had recently had lunch with Flores and “he advised her to apply for funding from OJJDP,” according to the committee memo. Peterson has said he informed Bennett about the grants that would be available.
In May, Flores “invited Ms. Bennett to a meeting with Michele DeKonty, his chief of staff,” the memo states. When the committee sought to interview DeKonty about that meeting, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right, according to the committee memo.
When Cummings pressed Flores on how he felt about DeKonty taking the Fifth Amendment, Flores initially said that is her right. Pressed further about whether he was concerned about it, Flores said, “I don’t have any concerns about that.”
Asked why DeKonty invoked the Fifth Amendment, Justice Department spokeswoman Kara McCarthy told Youth Today, “that’s her personal decision. That’s not on behalf of the Department of Justice.” McCarthy said DeKonty “did not” seek and did not receive permission from the department to take that step.
(Although some media reports have said Best Friends won more than it requested, OJJDP documents show that that is not true, and Bennett said it is not true. The foundation requested $600,000 a year for five years.)
Victory Outreach – $1.2 million over three years. Scored 41st.
This grant went to both Victory Outreach, which describes itself as a church-oriented Christian ministry, and Urban Strategies LLC, a consulting firm run by Lisa Cummins, who previously worked in the White House Office for Faith Based Initiatives.
Cummins had a meeting in March 2007 with Steven McFarland, director of the DOJ Task Force on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, about funding opportunities for her clients. McFarland then sent a memo to Flores saying he met with Cummins and “I recommended that she contact you regarding Victory Outreach.” The memo cites Cummins’ former role at the White House, and states, “I know you will find her a great asset to the work of JJDP.”
The OJJDP staffers who reviewed the bid “raised concerns with the capacity of Victory Outreach to perform under the grant,” the committee memo states.
Victory Outreach later rejected the grant, saying it did not have the capacity to carry it out.
As for meeting with some of the grant applicants, Flores told the committee, “I try to meet with anyone” who might want help in applying for grants, “trying to provide technical assistance,” including with the “nitty gritty” of applying on line.
Cummings, the congressman from Maryland, shot back that Flores refused to meet with some applicants that he subsequently did not fund, like Parents Anonymous, and told his staff that he did not want to have such meetings. He produced an e-mail to Flores from one of his staffers that read:
“Per our understanding, these calls were to be handled by Program Managers and to protect you from folks beating down your door by saying you are not available. … Open the door for one and others will follow.”
Flores replied to Cummings, “We can’t meet with everybody.”
Differences with Staff
All five current and former DOJ staffers and officials who spoke with the committee during its investigation said the process for selecting these grants was not fair and transparent, according to several of the committee members. While Flores defended his actions, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, said, “It seems that you are the only person at the Department of Justice who thinks your process was fair, transparent and served the taxpayers.”
While his staff recommended 18 bids to be funded – recognizing that not all could be funded because of financial limitations – Flores chose only five of them, along with five that were not recommended.