The president of the Legal Services Corp. asked Congress yesterday to finish "depoliticizing" his agency and to enact a strict statutory limitation on use of legal services funds for lobbying.
Corporation President Donald P. Bogard made the request in testimony before the Senate Labor Committee, which has been investigating former LSC officials' efforts to organize outside political support for an aggressive legal services program after President Reagan's election.
Bogard said that restrictions on legislative advocacy are embodied in agency regulations and in riders to appropriations bills. He urged that they be made permanent.
Meanwhile, Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) took sharp issue with testimony Tuesday by former LSC officials about a 1981 grant to a St. Louis organization. Hatch suggested that it was a clear-cut case of use of a legal services grant "as a ruse to cover federal funding of political activity."
The grant was issued in mid-1981 in response to an application by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri on behalf of the Coalition for Sensible and Humane Solutions. The application, Hatch said, was accompanied by materials stating that the coalition had been formed in February to fight budget cuts Reagan had proposed.
According to an April 29, 1981, letter, the LSC funding was sought for several activities, including publication of a handbook for the People's Lobbyists, establishment of a People College of Law focusing in part on legislative and administrative advocacy and development of a People's Alternative to budget cuts on a state and local level.
Hatch noted that at Tuesday's hearing Hulett H. Askew, former director of legal services' office of field services, and other former agency officials could not recall the grant, but, when shown documentation, Askew said it had been used to cover only permitted activities. He said the program was monitored by legal services' Chicago office.
Hatch said yesterday, however, that the coalition, which got grants of more than $20,000, conducted training programs to inform community activists about budget-cutting actions at all levels of government and to "develop strategies for fighting back."
Documents in federal files, submitted in support of final payments to the coalition, according to committee staff members, included a narrative summary of one training session. " . . .People were 'fired up,' " it was reported, and "it quickly became evident to everyone that they wanted to form a local anti-cutbacks coalition."
Hatch said that the purpose of the training was clearly "to form groups to lobby against the administration's budget cuts . . . . To pretend now that this program was designed simply to inform eligible clients of their rights is simply inaccurate . . . . One can only wonder what else the corporation was funding."
In that regard, committee investigators also turned up documents concerning a small 1981 initial grant of $2,125 to the Wadley-Bartow Citizens League Inc. of Wadley, Ga.
Subsequent reports by the man in charge, B.A. Johnson, a candidate for mayor, said that the activities included door-to-door canvassing, distributing leaflets and the showing of films "on voter education and the political process."
In response, J. Kenneth Smith, then the corporation's director of regional operations, wrote Johnson on Dec. 4, 1981, that "it would be extremely helpful to us if you would rework your grantee reporting form and delete the references to voter education, legislative and political process."
"Perhaps you could rephrase the language to say something to the effect that the project focused on citizenship and advocacy," Smith suggested. "I have enclosed the original form that you completed, along with a new form . . . . I wish you continued success on your project."
Hatch said that he found it difficult to avoid concluding from the files he has seen that the training grants "were being used as a ruse to cover federal funding of political activity."
Voicing similar suspicions, Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) called for an investigation by the General Accounting Office into a number of questions, "including whether corporation officials orchestrated a 'survival' effort" that diverted funds from actual services into lobbying on behalf of the corporation.
The GAO concluded on May 1, 1981, following an earlier investigation, that the corporation had engaged and allowed grant recipients to take part "in lobbying activities prohibited by federal law." Dan Bradley, then the president of the corporation, disagreed, contending that the GAO's interpretations of applicable laws were erroneous. But Bradley announced on May 11 that all personnel should "stop any and all activities coming within the GAO definition of grass-roots lobbying . . . ."