James McClellan's brief experience as a federal grantee has ended the way it began -- surrounded by controversy and charges of ideological bias.
The conservative activist and scholar received more than $300,000 from the Legal Services Corp. to provide technical aid for attorneys helping the poor. But even McClellan, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), says he was disappointed in the results.
After two deadline extensions, McClellan's group, the Constitutional Law Center (CLC), officially went out of business Jan. 31 when its grant was not renewed; half the reports it was required to write have yet to be distributed.
In addition, a planned conference on political abuses of legal aid grants never came off. And in its 16 months of operation, the group received only 14 phone calls seeking legal assistance.
After years of conservative criticism about liberal groups misusing federal money for partisan ends, McClellan's detractors say his performance shows that those on the right are adept at the same thing. McClellan, who ran the legal aid center out of his Cumberland, Va., farmhouse, offers a different view.
"There was a concerted effort to boycott the work of the center by Legal Services organizations," he said. "We were blacklisted before we even put out our first issue.
"The political harassment was very successful from the standpoint of those who wanted to make sure the center couldn't accomplish much. They did everything they could to make certain we could not succeed."
Melanne Verveer, policy director of People for the American Way, one of McClellan's liberal adversaries, urged the Legal Services Corp. to recoup part of the $337,000 grant it awarded to McClellan on the last day of fiscal 1984. She said the main beneficiary appeared to be McClellan's Center for Judicial Studies, a conservative think tank that operates out of the same farmhouse.
"From his record of nonaccomplishment, it appears that his purposes were no other than to be a sham organization for what he was already doing for the Center for Judicial Studies," Verveer said. "This whole project has been a trail of excuses of one kind or another. The services either didn't exist or were absurd."
Legal Services spokesman Daryl Borquist said the federally funded agency withheld a final $33,000 payment to the CLC because of the incomplete work. He said the agency did not renew the one-year grant, after twice extending it for four months, and is conducting a final audit.
McClellan is not the only conservative grantee to end up in hot water. Oakland's Urban Legal Foundation, which received a $400,000 grant at the same time, has been locked in an acrimonious dispute with Legal Services over charges of nonperformance.
Clint Lyons, director of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said such grants are part of "an ideological tilt" by an agency the Reagan administration has repeatedly sought to abolish. "One of Mr. McClellan's problems was he was perceived as being an opponent of legal services for poor people," Lyons said.
McClellan's difficulties spilled into public view last fall when he became the Republican candidate for a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates. He was defeated by Democrat Watkins Abbitt Jr., who hammered away at the federal grant controversy.
Legal Services and the General Accounting Office both launched inspections. The Legal Services report, which covered activity up to early January, said that CLC "has not established a firm presence in the legal community."
The CLC's regional conference, planned for last summer, was rescheduled for Nov. 15 and then canceled. The group has published four of six required newsletters to advise attorneys on court cases involving the poor; McClellan said the other two "are at the printers." He said two litigation manuals he was to produce are also "at the printers." He had proposed one on how gun control affects the poor, but Legal Services found the topic irrelevant and made him change it.
The group finished a draft of the other manual, on religious freedom in public schools. Many of the footnotes cite McClellan, who was an expert witness for Alabama authorities in a case in which the Supreme Court struck down a "moment of silence" in the state's schools.
Verveer and Alan Houseman, director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, scoffed at such studies. "Their work has virtually no relevance to the kind of poverty work that Legal Services does," said Houseman, whose group handles poverty and civil rights litigation. "We deal with evictions, divorces, housing and health programs. It isn't focusing on poverty issues; it's focusing on Moral Majority, right-wing issues."
But McClellan defended his approach as an alternative way of helping the poor. He accused People for the American Way of making "outrageous charges" that "smack of McCarthyism."
Legal Services inspectors found no evidence that the CLC aided McClellan's Virginia campaign, but they confirmed a number of links with his political think tank. The CLC leased its space on McClellan's property from the Center for Judicial Studies, as well as a jeep that the inspectors said was not needed. The two groups shared a phone system, and several CLC board members and employes had also worked for or advised the Center for Judicial Studies.
McClellan said the Center for Judicial Studies has reclaimed its space at the farmhouse and has an ambitious schedule for publishing books and monographs on conservative legal theory.
"We're coming back with a vengeance," he said.