Report: Justice Dept. Official Violated Ethics Rules in Grant-Making

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009; 2:18 PM

A former Justice Department grant-making administrator violated federal ethics and procurement rules in awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars in sole source contracts to ideologically favored companies and individuals, the department's inspector general concluded today.

The administrator, J. Robert Flores, was a political appointee during former president George Bush's administration who left his post after the inauguration in January. The department's public integrity section declined to pursue civil or criminal charges against Flores after ethics watchdogs forwarded their findings, investigators said.

The report issued this morning culminates a nearly two-year investigation into alleged irregularities with grants awarded by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention during the Bush administration.

Investigators focused in part on the hiring of Hector Rene Fonseca, a former Colombian military official who worked as a contractor to the office between November 2004 and July 2007, when he collected about $281,000 for his work on anti-gang programs.

Flores repeatedly tried to hire Fonseca under President Bush's effort to push faith based initiatives, the report said, but he did not follow "normal contracting procedures." Higher level Justice Department officials had previously denied Flores's bid to employ Fonseca under a sole source contract. After Fonseca began work, he reported directly to Flores and the term of his employment was extended from six months to two-and-a-half years, the inspector general report said.

Investigators said they could not conclude based on all the evidence and 30 witness interviews, however, that Fonseca's contract amounted to a "misuse" of Justice Department funds.

Flores told the inspector general that he hired Fonseca because of his ties to the faith-based community through a group called Samaritan's Purse. Hector Fonseca declined interview requests from the IG and could not be reached for immediate comment today.

"We were pleased that the OIG concluded its investigation without any further action to be taken against Mr. Flores," said Elliot S. Berke, a lawyer for Flores. "To Mr. Flores's knowledge, the hiring of Mr. Fonseca and the execution of his contract were done through proper channels."

Investigators said their findings should be included in the personnel file of Michele DeKonty, a former chief of staff to Flores, who left the department last year after refusing to testify on the grounds it would violate her Fifth amendment rights against self incrimination.

"The fact that the IG did not find any violations of law or Justice Department rules is welcome vindication for Ms. DeKonty, but it also underscores how unfairly she was treated by being forced to give up her job and having to endure reckless character assassination by congressional committees," said DeKonty's attorney, David Laufman.

The inspector general also conducted a broad review of contract awards in 2007, an unusual year in which Justice Department grant administrators were unburdened by congressional earmarks directing the disbursement of funds. During that period, the department enjoyed more freedom to select grant recipients for federal crime fighting money.

In 2007 the department handed out more than $113 million in crime fighting grants under the program, $70 million of which was provided to groups that had been invited to apply after officials in the office of Attorney General, Congress and the White House "lobbied" for the funds, a former administrator told the inspector general, according to the report.

Investigators said they uncovered little "contemporaneous documentation" to reflect why Flores and then administrator Regina Schofield chose one group over another. After media reports and a House Oversight hearing last year highlighted the discrepancies, then Justice Department officials directed subordinates to document their reasons for deviating from the independent peer review process that ranks grant awards.

Among the organizations that received awards from OJJDP that year were the World Golf Foundation's First Tee Initiative, whose honorary chair is former president George H.W. Bush; the Best Friends Foundation led by Elayne Bennett, the wife of conservative commentator William Bennett; and Victory Outreach, which had hired a former Bush White House official.

Investigators ultimately said that they could not determine whether the awards were appropriate because there weren't enough documents to reflect department decision-making at the time.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) decried the "abuses, ethical lapses and cronyism" that he said the report detailed and called the findings "consistent with what we have seen in so many parts of the Department of Justice under the past administration."

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