Investigators Look for Favoritism in Justice Department Grants

Sen. Claire McCaskill wants more information from the department.
Sen. Claire McCaskill wants more information from the department. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lawmakers and Justice Department auditors are examining millions of dollars in crime-fighting grants awarded by the agency last year in an effort to determine whether personal ties may have influenced the process, according to sources familiar with the inquiries.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has interviewed current and former employees in the Justice Department's grant-making units about whether officials disregarded independent reviews and steered awards to favored groups, the sources said.

The Justice Department's inspector general, meanwhile, is looking into allegations of an improper hire, according to people who have been contacted because of the probe.

Confusion over the grants and the process under which they were distributed have been the subject of complaints within the Justice Department and the law enforcement community. Justice Department staff members who oversee money targeted for children and juvenile offenders first sounded alarms earlier this year about what they called a haphazard approach that disadvantaged worthy applicants in favor of a program that promoted golf for inner-city teenagers.

Now members of Congress and watchdog groups are calling on investigators to expand their inquiry into the Byrne Grant program, the federal government's primary effort to support local crime fighting across the nation.

"Grant programs are a great tool for distributing federal funds, but only if the process is truly open, fair and competitive," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is demanding more information from the Justice Department. "Some bureaucrat cannot decide on a whim who gets precious tax dollars. It's insulting to all the programs that work hard on their applications to have merit take a back seat to who you know."

Each year, the Justice Department doles out more than $2 billion in grants to groups such as Neighborhood Watch, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The merit-based system is supposed to reward the most innovative approaches to attacking gangs, drug crime and youth violence. The resources are precious for state and local law enforcement groups fortunate enough to secure them in an era when counterterrorism takes top priority.

In 2007, lawmakers gave the Justice Department more than $150 million to dispatch as leaders saw fit, rather than earmarking it for specific groups as they had in years past. The idea was to herald an open approach to giving out grants.

But, according to documents and three sources familiar with events, the process did not work as anticipated. In some cases money was handed out without peer review. In others, unit leaders in the Bureau of Justice Assistance appear to have simply given grants to applicants who had won prior congressional budget earmarks in a carve-out from the competitive process, according to people familiar with the decision-making who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigations.

At least some of the criticisms about the grants will be aired today when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), will question J. Robert Flores, chief of the department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

Flores was first cited by the trade publication Youth Today for his role in awarding a $500,000 crime prevention grant to the World Golf Foundation's First Tee Program. In making that call, Flores passed over other applicants, including a Washington-based criminal justice information-sharing program and the National Child Protection Training Center, both of which secured higher rankings through the peer review process, according to documents gathered by lawmakers and a former staff member.

Victor Vieth, a former Minnesota prosecutor who now leads the child protection center at Winona State University, said he was "heartbroken" when he learned last year that Flores's unit had rejected his application to develop a training program on child abuse for students preparing to become police officers and social workers.

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