Legal Services Executives Living Large on Tax Dollars

By Larry Margasak
Associated Press
Thursday, August 17, 2006

The federal program that provides legal help to poor Americans turns away half its applicants for lack of resources. But that has not stopped executives from lavishing expensive meals, chauffeur-driven rides and foreign trips on themselves.

Agency documents obtained by the Associated Press detail the luxuries that executives of the Legal Services Corp. have given themselves with federal money -- from $14 "Death by Chocolate" desserts to $400 chauffeured drives to locations within taxicab distance of their offices.

The government-funded corporation has spacious headquarters in Georgetown -- with views of the Potomac and rent significantly higher than that of other tenants in the same building.

And Legal Services board members wrote themselves a policy that doubled the amount they can claim for meals, compared with staff employees.

Congress created Legal Services as a nonprofit corporation run with federal money to provide legal help in civil matters for Americans who cannot afford lawyers. It funds neighborhood clinics across the country that have lawyers to provide such help.

Three congressional committees have questioned the program's spending, as has the corporation's internal watchdog. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is threatening to withhold money if the corporation does not trim extravagance.

"It's waste and abuse," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), citing the board's doubling of the meal money as an example. "At 200 percent, it seems to me what we would call in Iowa living high off the hog."

Legal Services officials defend their program, saying administrative expenses are kept separate from money distributed to the local, independently run legal outlets.

Spokesman Thomas C. Polgar said LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and Chairman Frank B. Strickland "are aware they are using taxpayer funds and try to operate in a manner that is frugal and appropriate." Barnett is a former legal services attorney in New York; Strickland is an Atlanta lawyer.

Barnett declined to be interviewed; Strickland did not return phone messages seeking comment.

The scrutiny of Legal Services' spending comes as the corporation says it does not have enough resources to meet many poor clients' needs.

A Legal Services study in October found that for every client who receives service, one applicant is turned away for lack of resources. Because only those who contacted the program for assistance were included in the study, it is likely the study underestimated the unmet need, the corporation said.

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