By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008
Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation of a Justice Department grant-making official amid questions about his hiring practices, travel expenses and personal ties to groups to which he gave millions of dollars, according to two sources familiar with the probe.
Scrutiny of J. Robert Flores, leader of a Justice Department office that dispenses juvenile justice and crime prevention grants, intensified yesterday as lawmakers called him to Capitol Hill to explain why he brushed aside recommendations from career staff members to hand out more than $8 million in awards last year.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused on decisions by Flores to give grants to the World Golf Foundation's First Tee initiative, whose honorary chairman is former president George H.W. Bush, and a sexual abstinence program promoted by Best Friends, led by Elaine Bennett, wife of Reagan administration Cabinet official Bill Bennett.
Nonprofit groups that focus on child protection complained that they failed to win funding last year even though they had higher rankings from independent peer reviewers and career staff members in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
"The question before this committee is whether the grant solicitation was a rigged game and whether it has best served children around the country," said the committee chairman, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). "Mr. Flores, it seems you're the only person at the Department of Justice who thinks your process was fair, transparent and served the interest of taxpayers."
Flores asserted that he had the authority to override staff recommendations and that he had made decisions on the merits -- not personal or religious ties. His attorney, Elliot S. Berke, said in an interview that Flores would "continue to cooperate with the committee or any other government entity with interest in this matter."
Flores's chief of staff, Michele DeKonty, did not appear at yesterday's hearing after her attorney asserted that "as a matter of prudence . . . DeKonty elected to forgo cooperation with the committee at this time." The lawyer, David H. Laufman, said lawmakers' effort to "publicly stigmatize" her for asserting her constitutional rights was "reprehensible."
Flores's alleged use of government funds for personal travel expenses and his hiring of a politically well-connected contractor who allegedly performed little work in a high-paying job had been the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general, according to people contacted as part of the probe. The Office of the Inspector General recently referred the issue to criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department.
At yesterday's House hearing, Flores's previously unreported legal travails went unmentioned. But Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) asked why Flores had failed to pay a two-year-old golf fee until the eve of his testimony. The $159 fee stemmed from a visit to St. Augustine, Fla., where Flores played alongside people with ties to the First Tee program that later won a $500,000 grant from his office.
Flores replied that he had tried, to no avail, to get an invoice for the golf outing but that the paperwork fell through the cracks.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) chastised Democrats for attacking Flores based on differences of opinion and judgment calls on grants that he had full authority to make. Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) attributed complaints to "sore losers" who failed to win coveted funds last year. "Every federal contract is a sweetheart deal in one way or another," he added.
Word of the advancing investigation came as key senators called for more oversight of another, high-profile Justice Department grant program that handed out $150 million in awards last year. In a Washington Post article, current and former employees at the department and a watchdog group raised alarms about the way funds were disbursed in the Byrne Grant program.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department budget, said in a letter that she was "appalled" by a report that the department "may have played favorites with competitive grants."